Becka Mara McKay is slowly becoming one of our most reliable translators from the Hebrew. Her most recent translation, Lunar Savings Time (2011) comes as a counterpart to Blue Has no South (2010), both by Alex Epstein, and available from Clockroot Books. The two books complement each other not only physically, but also because they could be part of the same book. Published as “stories,” they would be probably categorized as prose poem or flash fiction collections by most American readers and writers.
The fact that, as in his previous book, the pieces in Epstein’s Lunar Savings Time are framed as “stories” is not unimportant because the framing forces the reader to adopt a certain position by focusing on the narrative thread. Indeed, with very few exceptions, all the pieces in this collection, no matter how short, “tell a story.” Even the exceptions could be called, technically speaking, “stories,” because there is something happening in them: “The last man in the world wrote the last haiku in the world;” or: “The ghost was still breastfeeding.”
There are two major influences that are obvious in this collection: Borges and Kafka. The references to Borges are indirect, and can be detected in a structure many of the pieces have, in which a story and its main protagonist become a tangent to another story with another protagonist, so that each story appears as the fragment of another, bigger story. On the other hand, Kafka’s name appears many times, as well as those of other famous real people, such as Heidegger, Stephen Hawking, Yuri Gagarin, Emily Dickinson, or mythological Greek heroes, which are appropriated in made-up contexts. For instance, the narrator’s grandmother, Rosa, “kissed Yuri Gagarin in 1961 in an elevator in Moscow.” The narrator’s grandparents are a recurrent presence, usually in the company of some famous characters, or else in a well-known historical context (the Holocaust), so one has the feeling of participating in the mythologized remaking of a life story. Like Borges, Epstein reinvents the truth, the real, and even history, by fictionalizing them (which is not to say that his stories don’t include many real facts).
A technique Epstein often uses is the parody of the logic of legends. Thus, “On the Metamorphosis” begins with “Once upon a time there was a tree who [. . .] fell in love with a woman who passed through the forest,” but a few lines into the story, the logic changes. The narrator steps out of the frame, and the fiction turns into meta-fiction, giving us only “one of the versions of this legend.” Then, the story goes back to its previous logic—“the tree returns to the forest of his birth“—only to serve us a hilarious tongue-in-cheek ending—“where he hangs himself.”
One of my favorite stories is “Franz Kafka, the Lost Years. A Draft of an Impossible Novel,” in which Epstein imagines an alternative life for Kafka, which is both very funny and sad—and quite . . . plausible. Kafka marries Dora; they make plans to emigrate to America, but then she becomes pregnant. In 1941 the two of them and their daughter are sent to a concentration camp, where Kafka’s small consolation is “the weather report of one of the camp newspapers, which, every day, accurately predicts most of the expected weather in [. . .] London, Tokyo and New York.” His wife and daughter die, and in 1944 Kafka is sent to Auschwitz. He survives and sails to Palestine, where he Hebraizes his name to Ephraim Kaspi and gets a job at Bank Mizrahi. Years later, he has an encounter with Max Brod, who has kept some of his stories, but Kafka doesn’t care. Says Brod: “You ungrateful bastard. It’s too bad that the Nazis didn’t kill you.” In his last years, Kafka spends his time going to the beach and the cinema, buys a camera and a record player. He travels to Jerusalem, which he finds “more beautiful than a postcard.” Eventually, and predictably, he dies.
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