The Canvas is loosely based on the account of Binjamin Wilkomirski, author of Fragments (1995), a tremendously popular Holocaust memoir; like Minksy’s story it was proven to be a fabrication. But when I say loosely based, I mean loosely: Wilkomirski and Minsky are more like ghosts at the center of this book. There is plenty of plot, to be sure — murder, intrigue, interrogation rooms, the inevitable double-cross, and exotic locales — and the pages turn like in a supermarket thriller (or at least one daring enough to substantively tackle the inexhaustible questions of God, death, and memory). The book is ambitious in scope: it is about religious orthodoxy and the transgressive power of literature; it’s also about collective guilt and national identity. Yet The Canvas is so particular in its details that it comes with a glossary appropriately placed in the middle of the novel.
Most disturbing of all, in a novel ultimately about the mutability of memory, are lines like this one from Wechsler: “Someone who stole other people’s identities wouldn’t stop short of murder.” Is this true? And if so, what does it say about Minsky or Wilkomirski? Are they killers at heart? And what of Zichroni, who steals the memory of his patients by touch alone? And what of Wechsler, the man who steals Minsky’s “memories?” Or Wechsler, who confesses: “I am what I remember. I don’t have anything else.”
A fabrication of character and memory, The Canvas is both a great novel and a genuine Holocaust testimony, in that it bares witness to the lasting power of trauma and how it shapes the strange and subjective mystery of human experience. It is an upsetting book, unabashedly philosophical, refusing closure, and challenging the very notion of truth by reminding us how much depends on perspective. It also happens to be playful, suspenseful, and one hell of a page-turner. I could not put it down. Both times.
Additionally, Scott had the chance to interview translator Brian Zumhagen and talk about some of the translation issues in doing this book:
In the case of an idiom like that, I’m sure you’re worried about losing meaning with an English version.
Any translator, or anyone who reads translation knows there will always be a loss. And there are certain things you can’t do it at all. You can use a new idiom and hope it’s not too bound up with your own particular moment in time. There are those cases when you know the translator was trying to be a little too hip. That’s really painful. There’s one expression where Wechsler is talking about going to Spain and he takes a bunch of unsolicited manuscripts with him in a suitcase, and he throws it out. And the expression is der Koffer mußte dran glauben, or “the suitcase had to believe in it.” What the hell does that mean? It actually means the suitcase had to go, that it had to die. It’s a euphemism that sounds like the suitcase is getting its last rights. I wound up choosing the suitcase had to “bite the dust” because it has a similar meaning and has a similar gangsterish feel. I guess that’s the one point where twenty years from now it may seem a little cheesy, I hope not.
But in the book it also has the feel of an antiquated expression still in use.
Yes, and it’s that way in German as well. That kind of thing was fun. I don’t think anything in the book required too great a sacrifice. Which is why Benjamin’s so happy with it. And most of the things that were really challenging linguistically were interesting to do. And most of them came up in chapter two. The biggest problem: Whechsler quotes a German translation of a Polish poem, and in that translation is a play on words that only exists only in the German, and it becomes central to his own explanation of life in East Germany. “They live in the basements of huge tenement houses, and only the shop-sign WRINGER HERE betrays their presence” — In the German, mangel means “shortage,” as in the food shortage sense, but it also means “wringer,” as in pressing rollers used for pressing water our of clothes. I could have used the British term, “mangle,” which means the same thing, but then I’d be going with UK usage when the rest of the book is American usage. And then I found that “Wringer” is in the English translation by Czeslaw Milosz. And you don’t argue with Milosz. The problem then is than that I had to invent a new sentence, reveal the proscenium arch a little bit, and explain to the reader that in German the word for “wringer” is the same for “shortage.” This is the last thing you want to do. [. . .]
How did Stein respond to it? I’m guessing he appreciated how faithful you were.
He was fine with it because it retained the meaning. I had to make a radical move but it worked out well. In that same chapter there was a more fun radical move, in which I had to quote Tina Turner. And in a way that does not appear in the original.
This one I remember!
There’s a section when Wechsler’s wife is cataloging all of her book purchases, and Wechsler comments on the stories the inscriptions in her books tell. In one used book that she found at a flea market, there’s a loving dedication between two women, and he wonders what may have happened? Did somebody die? Did the relationship end? Wechsler’s wife, in the original, says, “Someone has sold their heart out for cheap.” This is the expression. And immediately I thought of Tina Turner’s “what’s love but a secondhand emotion,” because the German here, vertrödeln, contains the word for junk like you’d find at a flea market. So what Wechsler’s wife is literally saying is, someone has second-handed her heart. The closest thing in English would be “someone has trifled her heart away,” but nobody talks like that, and it doesn’t sound antiquated in the German. It’s too lofty. Nobody in the novel is saying anything like “forsooth methinks someone hath trifled away her heart.” I really hated the way it sounded. So finally I asked to Benjamin if he thought Wechsler’s wife would quote Tina Turner. I’m not sure he completely grasped what I was asking at that moment. So I went with: “I guess sometimes love really is a second-hand emotion.” Not a literal translation but it got to the heart of what she was saying. And he thought it was perfect.
Definitely worth checking out, as is Full Stop in general. It’s an excellent, excellent site.