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by Sidney Kessler
BEFORE YOU GET to the fifth page of text it will become apparent that you haven’t yet encountered a period. Don’t be put off by that. Curt Leviant’s King of Yiddish is a page-turner. It is a comedic tour de force, interspersed with a detective story that will have you following Shmulik Gafni through Poland in an obsessive pursuit. He is hunting the man he witnessed murdering his father and uncle in Kielce, Poland, a pogrom that occurred fourteen months after the end of World War II.
Shmulik is described as an “Overlyfull Professor” of Yiddish at the fictional University of Israel in Jerusalem. The pogrom in Kielce is a well-known tragedy that did occur, but Leviant’s fertile imagination weaves an original tapestry from that terrible time and place.
A poignant, elegiac passage describes the pre-war streets in Warsaw:
The long-gone Jewish streets, first destroyed by the Germans, later bulldozed by the Poles, streets so Jewish even their Polish names rang Jewish for the Jews and maybe for the gentiles too, so Jewish the Yiddish shop signs loomed larger in his memory than the shops themselves, as if in some surrealist painting, as if his brain were one enormous total recall camera that saw those black-and-white Hebrew-lettered Yiddish signs, entire streets made of so many Hebrew letters a child could have learned to read just from the signs, since every letter of the alef-beys flew through the air. Life was so Jewish that even the walls spoke Yiddish, a memorable remark made by his martyred uncle Henekh Dusawicki (pronounced Dusavitsky), olev ha-sholem: ‘Dos leben is geven azoy Yiddish az afileh di vent hobn geret Yiddish.’ [Life was so Yiddish that even the walls spoke Yiddish.]
So where’s the comedy? The humor centers around a basic human failing: Men will be men, and Shmulik Gafni falls under the spell of Malina, a Polish Catholic linguist who is determined to become proficient in Yiddish. She also happens to be half Shmulik’s age and is unbelievably beautiful. Malina is his second obsession.
Heads turned when Malina took off her terry cloth tunic and the sun shone on her deep raspberry red bikini top. Traffic stopped. The Nice-Monte Carlo helicopter shuttle hovered in midair. Storks carrying babies on their way over the Alps to nest in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains swooped down, leaving some half dozen Eskimo tykes homeless. For a moment Shmulik was blinded by the size, shape, pitch, timbre, mode and musicality of the large ripe Galilee melons, first image that came to his Israeli mind, recalling the stacks of melons in the Jerusalem outdoor market, fruits that were popping out of their baskets, so small were the restraints – we’re back to Malina’s melons now – so large the countervailing force.
Along the way the reader encounters a khasidic unkosher kidnapping that goes awry (imagine the Marx brothers in black hats), and a bris (kosher or not depending on whether you are Orthodox or Reform) that is grist for Leviant’s mill of linguistic tomfoolery.
The two stories, solving his father’s murder and getting to the bottom (and the top) of Malina are interspersed narratives that keep you guessing and entertained. Along the way you meet other academics who let you in on university rivalries and gossip. A cookie with an incredible miniature topping in a Vienna café is also an important character in the plot, which might have been written by Kafka, Borges or Nabokov but is pure Leviant, plying his considerable skill as a fabulist.
Curt Leviant also steps outside the narrative and talks to the reader. At one point the author says you can skip a chapter. Take my advice: keep reading. As you join Gafni in his quest for justice, you will also find allusions to previous works by Leviant. These he jokingly attributes to famous Hebrew and Yiddish writers, telling us that other colleagues translated those books. One of these is the Icelandic writer, C. Urtl Eviant, a self-referential invention who also plays a role in King of Yiddish.
Considering all the word play in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew, my favorite occurs when a colleague of Shmulik’s is calling 911. He tells the operator he is a linguist with the City University of New York. Propriety in a family publication requires you figure it out for yourself.
If you have read Leviant’s other fiction you will catch many of the references here. If you haven’t, you may want to back up and read some of his earlier novels. The Yemenite Girl, The Man Who Thought He Was Messiah, and Diary of an Adulterous Woman are good places to start. His novels have been widely translated throughout Europe. Along with his fiction, Leviant is a renowned translator of Yiddish literature. He has rendered into English the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Chaim Grade, Sholom Aleichem and others.
John Irving has written that he always composes the last few sentences of his novels before he begins page one. Leviant must have done this with his novel. For those of you who like to look at the end of a book before you begin — please resist.
King of Yiddish is a gripping narrative that will fascinate you from the opening paragraph to its surprising last.
Sidney Kessler is a free-lance writer in Glen Allen, Virginia, with recent pieces in the Wall Street Journal and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.