Bulgarian filmmaker Angel Wagenstein is the author of three novels, the first of which is Isaac’s Torah, originally published in Bulgarian in 2000 and now available for the first time in English from Handsel Books in a brilliant translation by Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova. A good indicator that a book is a significant achievement is the sheer volume of conversation topics to which it can give rise in literary analysis; that said, it is difficult to know where to begin. So, with shameless unoriginality, I will begin with the cover.
This book features something which was once common (think of the earliest novels: Tom Jones, for instance) but has fallen out of use in novel-writing: a cover-page tagline: “Isaac’s Torah: A novel, concerning the life of Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld through two world wars, three concentration camps and five motherlands.” No more accurate and concise description of the novel can be given. Here we are given the setting in history and the protagonist’s condition, as well as a hint, suggested in that epic-scale term, “five motherlands,” of the turbulent scope of the story within.
To me, concentration camps were the first words to jump out at me and I’ll admit, I had some initial apprehension about tackling a heavy piece of Holocaust literature. But my worry was immediately dissuaded by the narrator Isaac Blumenfeld’s sense of humor; author Angel Wagenstein’s uncanny ability to portray, in vivid prose, the voice of a rambling reminiscent telling his story over a coffee on a Sunday afternoon; and of course, translators Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova’s success in transferring intact that voice across the language gap. And in book 4, I was relieved of guilt, as the narrator gives a nod to my apprehension:
And now, please, save me from the memory, heavy as a hundred-ton cast-iron mold, and allow me not to describe to you the hell in which we ended up! . . . In short, save me, please, because of the requirement for the completeness of plot . . . from repeating to you things that are already painfully familiar to you, and that you are already maybe even fed up with.
In this way Isaac Blumenfeld excuses his circumvention of the horrible weight of the Holocaust in the awesome, epic narrative of his life. But to return to the tagline, there are two other, equally-weighted subjects to the matter of this book: the two World Wars and the five motherlands. Blumenfeld’s trip and tumble through these wars, camps and countries forms the body of a seamless narrative, laced with humor, tragedy, wit and wisdom.
Of humor, there is no shortage, despite the equal-quantity dosage of tragedy. As Wagenstein notes in his Acknowledgements, “through [Jewish jokes and anecdotes] my people have turned laughter into a defensive shield, and a source of courage and self-esteem through the most tragic moments of their existence!” Blumenfeld himself maintains a sense of humor even in the face of almost certain death, such as in this passage from book 4, in which he is so far avoiding persecution by pretending to be Polish:
The whole business was about some big boss of theirs who’d been shot in the streets of Warsaw, and now they were looking for a hundred Poles as hostages. You know how it goes: if the assassins do not surrender themselves the hundred Poles will be shot in legal and fully understandable retribution. Now, I ask you . . . what was better—to remain a Pole or admit I was a Jew? . . . In the one case, as well as in the other, I’d end up, as the saying goes, pushing up daisies, but I personally preferred to be a Polish Jew—a sweeper in the New York subway.
And throughout the novel, Blumenfeld compares, with ironic wit, real-life atrocities, all-too-human insanities, and plain misfortune, to a wealth of little fables, jokes, and anecdotes.
The thing I find most intriguing about this book is its construction by the author, Wagenstein, as almost the work of another “author,” Blumenfeld. As Wagenstein points out in the passage he has included “Instead of a Foreword,” the work “is nothing more than a conscientious transcription of another’s memories and reflections,” which fact makes him, in a sense, a translator himself, not between languages, but from oral narrative to page. The careful balance of digression, rambling, and non sequitur—the trappings of the oral narrative—against elegant, discursive prose constructions is impressive. While reducing his tangible presence in the overall picture, Wagenstein provides a fine glaze of craft as the vessel in which the narrative is delivered from the storyteller to the reader.
Angel Wagenstein’s novel is an important monument to the lives of those who suffered the horrors of the two World Wars and all those wars’ extenuations, but rather than a lamentation of Blumenfeld’s, and the Jewish people’s, loss, it is a celebration of his and their lives. As uplifting as it is tragic, Isaac’s Torah is a great contribution to the literature of the period, the Wars, and the Holocaust, and to world literature as a whole.