In what is decidedly not a typical Holocaust-themed book, a renowned Yiddish scholar struggles with an ailing wife, her changeable young successor, and his own decadeslong effort to avenge murders committed in a post–World War II pogrom.
At age 70, Shmulik Gafni stirs up gossip among his colleagues at the University of Israel and much of Jerusalem that he is “involved, invalved, invulved with a blonde, full-chested, slim-waisted Polish Catholic shikse” half his age. This bombshell, figurative and full-figured, drops only after many digressions in the three sentences totaling more than 2,000 words that open Leviant’s (Zix Zexy Ztories, 2012, etc.) ninth work of fiction. The quote and logorrhea say much about the novel, which is full of detours and persistent punning, verbal verve and self-indulgence. A descendant of Mozart the size of a pecan owns a Vienna cafe. A group of elderly Jews in Warsaw achieves immortality. An eminent scholar forges author autographs in old university library books. And the author makes a cameo—among other intrusions—as the undisguised translator of S.Y. Agnon, C. Urtl Eviant. Inventive, with a touch of magic realism and a dollop of plain silly, Leviant is the sort of compulsive entertainer who may leave his audience wanting less. But he can cut the levity when the moment demands it: with the death of Gafni’s wife, in the rapid souring of his marriage to the shiksa, and especially as he seems near his goal of finding the man who killed his father and uncle. They were Holocaust survivors whose deaths Gafni witnessed some 50 years earlier during the July 4, 1946 pogrom in Kielce, Poland—an actual atrocity.
Leviant’s quirky blend of irreverence, exuberance, and sobering history ultimately makes for a ragtag novel in which the author is clearly having a lot of fun—maybe more than the reader.