A young translator delivers an old man’s last testament, the untold story of a talented Yiddish poet.
A spiritual philosopher, memoirist (Vows, 2005, etc.) and founder of the literary site Killing The Buddha, Manseau has already delved into his own Catholic upbringing. In his debut novel, he reaches across cultures to compose a living, breathing portrait of a bad-tempered but charmingly eloquent poet and the young man chosen to bring his words forward in time. “One cannot write of memory without wanting to explain with every inkstroke all that was once unknown,” says Yiddish poet Itsik Malpesh, who remembers his 90-something years with equal parts impish humor and profound melancholy. Malpesh’s story is interspersed with that of his translator, a religion major who catalogues books for a Jewish cultural organization. A well-timed coincidence brings him to the door of the aged poet as well as Malpesh’s stack of 22 notebooks chronicling his life. “To be the greatest,” Malpesh chuckles, “One needs only to be the last.” The translator’s inexperience puts Malpesh’s cynical voice into perspective, as the young man’s clumsy first experiences with modern-day romance stand in stark, sometimes poignant contrast to Malpesh’s recollections of his long journey. The poet writes of the violent pogrom that marked his birth in Eastern Europe and of the young daughter of local butcher Sasha Bimko who witnesses his arrival and plays a most momentous role in his later life. The emergent poet becomes a revolutionary journalist in Odessa before fleeing to Manhattan, where he becomes entangled with Jewish mobsters and works in the sweat shops of the garment district. It’s only at the end of a long, long life that Malpesh finally arrives at his own version of a promised land.
A terrific book with a believable protagonist who’s given ample room to tell his tale.