Rooted in poetry

New novel is a history-haunted journey across worlds, with the Holocaust ever present

Holocaust novel cartoon 521 (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Holocaust novel cartoon 521
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
In 1881, the St. Petersburg cell of the notorious anarchist organization Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will) assassinates the tyrannical anti-Semite Czar Alexander II, the flames of murderous pogroms sweep through the Pale of Settlement and a middle-class Jewish boy from Muswell Hill in 21st century London is rescued by the banned Yiddish Jericho Players theater company of Latvia... What?
Bernard Kops, the doyen of European literature, has written a great new Jewish novel, his tenth. Nominally, it is a coming-of-age story centered on 17-year-old Sam Glass, who slips fantastically back into time, on a mission to kill the hated czar. But this is just a first step in a history-haunted journey across worlds, with the Holocaust ever present in the background.
Yet Kops infuses this tale with humor, empathy and depth worthy of the renowned Yiddish author Shalom Aleichem. His universe, like Sholem Aleichem’s, is centered around wise, passionate and magnetic matriarchs at the peak of their power, surrounded by weaker men and whores and witches defending a place in their orbit.
One such matriarch is Lisa, Sam’s gorgeous widowed mother, who is about to embark on a love affair a year after the untimely death of her beloved husband, Sam’s father.
Another is Sarah, Lisa’s equally young and desirable great-great-great grandmother who summons our heartbroken hero from his painful present back into the Vitebsk of 1881, the town of his forebears, to assassinate the czar. And this is what he, together with a team of bombers, actually does.
Now our adventurer, having tackled his apparent destiny, finds himself trapped in the wrong country and the wrong century of a confusing world. Yet his journey back to the real world proves even more confusing: the sounds of the Holocaust follow him all the way back to the idyllic Thames Valley of London.
Many writers familiar to this sensitive, educated North London teenager pop up in the story unexpectedly and always on cue. Sam meets Anne Frank who wonders why he had to run away from home, since “mine,” she recalls, “ran away from me.”
Poets and lovers of freedom like Shelley and Lorca stroll in the brutalized Russian lands soon to come under the yoke of the Soviets. Sam, who has never experienced a single act of anti-Semitism on Muswell Hill Broadway, watches T.S. Eliot step off his pedestal to seek out the Jews below the rats “underneath the piles.” Even Shakespeare helps out when the protagonist must eventually, literally, sing for his supper.
Kops hails from the bygone, destitute European Jewish immigrant settlements of East London. He is extraordinarily prolific – he has published more than 40 plays, two autobiographies and six collections of poetry – and, at long last, commercially successful.
All of Kops’s writing is rooted in poetry, which may perhaps explain his ability to make his prose throb with passion, in a way reminiscent of the Russian Jewish short story writer Isaac Babel in his classic 1920s collection Red Cavalry. His poetic skill, in effect, powers his prose.
He invests it with rhythms approaching blank verse, which can readily convey almost any mood that the author wishes to evoke.
Let me show you how this works. In the following example, I have formatted and edited only very slightly a passage of Kops’s prose about the spread of panic at Vitebsk railway station: it succeeds as vibrant descriptive poetry:
A long queue of ragged, silent and lifeless humans were shuffling forward, one shoe at a time, everyone trying to get away from Vitebsk.
The Red Rabbi sniffed... checking the atmosphere: “I fear there is pogrom in the air.”
“There is always a pogrom in the air and more often a pogrom on the ground,” Akiva retorted.
The creatures in the queue seemed barely able to rub two kopecks together. Where were they off to, and why? As they approached the ticket hatch some urgent whispers started to circulate.
The voices of the lumpen stragglers were morose and suddenly fearful. “Did someone say pogrom?” An old hag cackled: “I see it with my own ears...”
A toothless man muttered: “I’ve heard it with my own eyes...”
“When, WHEN ?...” “Anytime you like...
Tonight! Tomorrow or yesterday!...” But, “It is all a tall story,” uttered a heavily pregnant Jewish dwarf.
Now consider Kops’s unedited prose below, describing a real pogrom raging amidst a theatrical performance: “Chaos was smiling on his rostrum, conducting the scene. The hall was alight and the crowds from outside rushed in with burning torches. The cast huddled together on stage. The audience was a tangled, screaming, unbelieving crowd.
And the mob went in amongst them.
“Death to the Yids. Pogrom! Pogrom! You bastard Jews. Christ murderers. You’re finished in this country.” And daggers and bread knives were doing their job, a flashing flood; and blood was fountaining, pouring down and hammers were crashing, and smashing and nightmare was king.
The hall ignited and the slavering flames licked at the bundle of actors upon the stage...
And down in the hall, peasants cried and fought each other and tore at each other desperate to get outside.
“Death to the Yids! Death to the Yids.”
The chorus continued outside.
“We’re finished. We’re finished. God help us. They are burning us. They are turning us into smoke.”
As a boy, Sam had slipped into the past to get away from home; as a man, he must seek his future on board an immigrant ship with the touring Jericho Players dreaming of their own, permanent Yiddish theater in London.