From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Bulgarian author and screenwriter Wagenstein devotes his powerful novel to an affable Jewish tailor from a small town in Eastern Europe who survives the reigns of Hitler and Stalin. Wagenstein himself escaped from a concentration camp and was saved from execution when the Soviets entered Bulgaria. Half a century later, he creates self-effacing narrator Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld, threading Jewish jokes throughout the narrative not only to sweeten the bitter material but also because they encapsulate the humanistic foundation of Isaac's philosophy. Isaac's town of Kolodetz in the Austro-Hungarian empire becomes part of Poland, then the U.S.S.R., before being overtaken by Nazi Germany and eventually reclaimed by the Soviets. He is drafted into military service by each of his first three motherlands. The Germans invade, and Isaac, posing as a Pole, is sent to a Nazi labor camp. Inadvertently revealing himself as a Jew, he ends up in a concentration camp, after which the liberating Soviets exile him to Siberia. Isaac's mesmerizing voice charms through every disaster, and engages and delights the reader without distracting from Wagenstein's profound insights into life's absurdities. (Nov.)
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“He couldn’t care about politics, but unfortunately politics showed a growing interest in him.” Always there are the Yiddish jokes, even at the most hopeless times; in fact, in Wagenstein’s engaging historical novel, the wry humor reveals both the unbelievable horrors of history and fleeting moments of transcendence. Born in the Kolodetz shtetl when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I, the novel’s narrator, Blumenfeld, becomes a citizen of five countries, without ever changing where he lives, except when he is moved to Nazi concentration camps and then to a Soviet labor camp. Beyond what he calls today’s “Holocaust blather” with its “air-conditioned and aromatic criteria and values” are the facts, including that his wife and children never returned from the camps. Can one man be a Jew and a Nazi war criminal and a Soviet traitor? The jokes that pepper the text make you read them aloud, as do the wise comments of the rabbi who teaches Blumenfeld that meaning is in the searching and not in the finding. Great for reading groups. --Hazel Rochman