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Bend in the Road Paperback – January 18, 2009
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In the 2nd of the novellas, From Stage to Stage, the troupe is hired by a prominent Jewish merchant to perform for his daughter's wedding, and the group's musician, Yuval, composes a musical version of The Emperor's Nightingale. Yuval, secretly gay, is fascinated by the merchant's homely gardener, Tvsi, whom Yuval recognizes as a kindred spirit, and when he hears Tvsi sing, Yuval realizes that he has found his nightingale - and also the love of his life. But, things don't go smoothly.
The stories are both charming and sentimental, in the nicest sense of the word. The settings are colorfully evoked and one truly gets a sense of sharing the lives of these people. For the most part the characters, even the minor ones, are well limned. Both stories have a folkloric air about them, almost a fairy tale quality, so it is probably less critical than it might otherwise have been that the two villains are mostly one-dimensional, almost the archetypical ogres of old legend. Or, Golems, if you will. Indeed, the stories remind me of fables handed down through generations rather than stories recently penned, which gives them a nice sense of authenticity.
There are, however, inherent problems with writing historical fiction, and they are compounded when the fiction is set in a milieu that might be considered exotic by many. The author must provide enough detail to lend verisimilitude, and not so much as to bog down the story. It is much like cooking: you want seasoning to add to the flavor, but not so much you can't taste the chicken. Here, the author's use of Yiddish phrases and words sometimes threatens to overwhelm the bird. Some of them are familiar enough and some of them readily grasped in context, but some also can have a reader unfamiliar with the language scratching his head. The effective result is that it is likely only those familiar with the language will really appreciate these stories to the fullest extent possible.
I asked the author about this issue and got this explanation from her, which seems reasonable: "One of the reasons why I included them was because of the very diversity of the members of the troupe. Some might have been speaking Polish or German or Hungarian. Aryeh more often than not would be thinking and speaking English since this was his first language and using Yiddish as a means to increase communication with the other members. Rather than saying, `Ruven spoke in Hungarian with a sprinkling of Yiddish words', I just sprinkled them in. I wanted to let the reader know that what you spoke impacted on your status (for instance, Froy Silberstein's use of German) Also, to translate every word into English to me lost some of the flavor of taking place in another country."
The author adds a glossary at the end, but a good story is a dream shared by the writer and the reader. Ideally, the author wants the reader to forget he is reading a book and, in a sense, live the dream. But when the reader stops to look up a word, the spell is broken, and he is reminded that it is, after all, just a book.
None of which is to say the average reader, without knowledge of Yiddish, shouldn't, or wouldn't, enjoy this book immensely. I would recommend, however, that the reader forego resorting to the glossary while he is reading the stories. Even without understanding every expression, the astute reader will find little difficulty in following where the story goes and what the characters are about, and he can remain in the author's thrall - which is really the end most to be desired.
Notwithstanding this authorial choice of vocabulary, however (and it is just that, a choice, neither good nor bad of itself but simply how the storyteller chose to present her work) it is self evident that this was a labor of love for the author, and ultimately the affection she so obviously feels for her characters and their lives overrules all other considerations. Those who are willing to suspend their questions and read on without undue puzzlement will find it a lovely book, and well worth the reading. Then they can go to the glossary and look up those unfamiliar expressions at leisure. And perhaps gain a useful education in the process.
In the Lion's Den Aryeh Nachman is the bastard son of a wealthy man who provided for him till his twenty-one year and then left him alone in the world. Truth be told, Aryeh was just alone in the world, having left his home in England at eighteen years old when his unrequited but returned love for his tutor gave him no chance: his tutor was from Poland, and after spending five years with Aryeh and realized that he loved the man, he decided to return back home and married. Since to Aryeh was never denied anything, this refusal didn't set well with the young man, and he spent the following years searching for the love he was denied; from careless rake with his father's money to kept man for wealthy and older women, Aryeh is now without money and a roof and he accepts the offer of a traveling Yiddish theater troupe. Here he meets Danaleh, a very young and very innocent man, but even if innocent, and very much virgin, Danaleh knows that he is not interested in woman, on the contrary he is very much drawn to the handsome Aryeh. Even if Aryeh is not much older than Danaleh, he is very much more experienced and he doesn't want to taint Danaleh with his "filthy" desires. But if he only knew that Danaleh, with his naivete and innocence, is more than eager to be the heroine in Aryeh's dreams, in fact Danaleh has a penchant to dress as a woman, a thing he can only realize when he is on stage, but that he would so like to do also in private, with Aryeh.
In From Stage to Stage is the story of talented musician Yuval Smolenski, the other member of the troupe who has more interest in men than women, but as for Aryeh and Danaleh, it's not simple for him to find a soul mate. He travels with his sister, a grown woman with mental problem who behaves like a child, and Yuval, even if interested, would never marry and leave her alone. And so he is content with the few hush encounters he can snatch in anonymous cities. But being Jewish and gay is becoming more and more dangerous, for a reason or another. Then, while rehearsing for a big marriage during which they will perform, he meets Tsvi, a big man with the face of a monster and the voice of an angel. Also Tsvi is hiding, but more his preferences for men, he is hiding his religious origins: he is a member of the Chassidim, an ultra religious sect of Judaism, and he has some reason why he doesn't want for it to be known. But when he sings, his origins are very much clear, since he sings like he is making love with God, and Yuval can't help to love him as well, despite his external looks.
For complete different reason, both couples don't consider themself worthy of love: Aryeh probably believes to be tainted, Danaleh to be too simple, Yuval consider a problem his religion and Tsvi is running away from his sense of guilty. All of them will find shelter and a new family in the traveling theatre troupe, and around them history will have its course, making the novel quite fascinating and really interesting for the history lovers. Part of this fascination is also due to the very detailed and researched work that the author obviously made: the Jewish culture and way of life of the end of the nineteen century is described in such details that even if you are not familiar with the words and the customs, you will find yourself immersed in them... and if you have some problems, well there is a very helpful glossary at the end of the book!