Monday, June 13, 2011

32. Songs for the Butcher's Daughter by Peter Manseau

I read about this book in Hadassah magazine because it was a National Jewish Book Award winner. I picked up a used copy at Harvard Book Store about a month ago, and a few days ago dug it out of one of my boxes of books. The book quickly fit into a comfortable tradition for me, a book like The History of Love, People of the Book, Everything is Illuminated and other modern Jewish fiction. One of the main characters or rather, "the translator," is, like the actual author, not Jewish, but a Catholic raised in Boston. The book takes place in Massachusetts and in Baltimore, Maryland, both places I know well. Even the saga of the book's fictional author, Itsik Malpesh, from Kishinev to Odessa to New York City, feels familiar from my reading,though I have never been to the first two and never lived in the last.


The unnamed translator begins the book with the story of how he came to learn Yiddish, pass for Jewish, and become the translator of Itsik Malpesh. Along the way, he comments on Malpesh's stories from the larger context of Yiddish literature and narrates the rise and fall of his relationship with a Jewish girl under his assumed faith. Malpesh records his memoirs along with several of his poems, and his story is both that of a typical immigrant to the New World and that of a typical character of Yiddish literature. While I am not overly familiar with the genre, I am familiar with the stories of Sholem Aleichem and with Jewish folk tales in general. This perspective allowed me to both expect and accept the pogrom, the necessity of fleeing (really a staple of any journey novel or mythological journey), and especially the repeated encounters with people of legend or people from his past, the constant telling and re-telling of stories, and in general remarkable tongue-in-cheek coincidences. Itsik continues to confront people from his past, and as I was reading, I thought this was meant to emphasize that he and they were all characters rooted in Yiddish stereotypes; the slick man, the lost love, the wise man, the boss. However, in the author interview in the back of the book, Manseau claims that coincidences like this occur and are accepted in real life, when they are rejected as contrived in literature. I was disappointed in this answer, I wanted the coincidences to be symbolic for Yiddish literature in some way. Perhaps they still are. This is why author interviews should not be included!

Overall, Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, was an entertaining and comfortable read. I felt like I learned a bit more about Yiddish literature as well. I wish that the translator had had more of a story, as I was interested in him, but the book focuses mainly on Malpesh. In contrast, it would have been interesting to have more detailed translator footnotes and then his story at the end. I was also interested in what the book would have to say about the concept of 'passing,' a trope in earlier American literature more in regard to race than faith, especially since the real author is a Catholic with an interest in Yiddish lit, but in the end, it peters out into a non-issue. I suppose the focus shifts more into passing in terms of language than in terms of faith, but even in that case, it's explained as a desire to be 'new,' rather than a desire to gain a societal advantage. Recommended to fans of Jewish fiction.

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