Tragedy is overlaid with Jewish humor as an inoffensive man survives war and nationalism in Central Europe.
In an afterword, Bulgarian writer and filmmaker Wagenstein (Farewell, Shanghai, 2007, etc.) acknowledges Jewish jokes as “a source of courage and self-esteem through the most tragic moments,” and his discursive novel makes considerable use of them in its account of the life of Isaac Blumenfeld. The son of a tailor in the shtetl of Kolodetz, Blumenfeld was a dreamy boy who fell in love with Sarah, the sister of his lifelong friend Rabbi Shmuel Ben-David, and was swept up in history. In 1918, Blumenfeld was called up into the Austro-Hungarian army but the war was lost before he saw action and he returned home a Pole. Twenty-one years later, now married to Sarah with three children, he is called up again and again steps down before fighting, this time as a comrade, Kolodetz having been annexed by the Soviet Union. In 1941, Blumenfeld is captured by the Germans and sent first to a labor camp, then to typhoid-ridden Flossenbürg. After the Americans liberate the camp, Blumenfeld succumbs to the disease. Once recovered, he learns his family has perished and settles in Vienna until he’s arrested by the Soviets, tried for high treason and military crimes and sent to Siberia for ten years. The story ends abruptly, years later, with Blumenfeld back in Vienna, imagining himself and Sarah flying—Chagall-like—into the future.
As ironic judgments of monstrosity and meaning go, this one is intelligent and deeply felt, but insufficiently mordant.