History, war… and humour?
Publisher: Pushkin Press
First Published: 2012; 15th June 2015 in English
Date Reviewed: 27th May 2016
Original language: Hebrew
Original title: לילה אחד, מרקוביץ (Markovitch, Layla Echad) (Markovitch, One Night)
Translated by: Sondra Silverston
Yaacov Markovitch has an unremarkable face. No one really notices him. His friend, Zeev Feinberg has an amazing moustache that everyone knows about. The friends enlist in a programme designed to rescue Jewish women from Germany, to bring them back to the homeland and whilst Zeev has no issues with the idea of divorcing a wife – he has a girlfriend who smells of oranges – Yaacov finds himself married to the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen, a woman who wants nothing to do with him and will ignore him in the years that follow.
One Night, Markovitch is a funny yet poignant book (‘poignant’ is on the cover; it’s perfect) about all sorts of things related to the self as well as war and the effects of it on people’s lives. It’s one of those books that is solid throughout and very special.
The humour is mostly laugh out loud and very well timed – never too much, never something you forget. The book is peppered yet it would be difficult to label it a complete comedy because it’s anything but stereotypical. I’m going to have to share a quote:
“Are you excited about the journey to Palestine?”
That she would be excited about their marriage was something he dared not expect, but he hoped that the excitement she felt at the proximity of the Holy Land would project a bit onto the means of her reaching it, that is, onto him.
“Definitely. I’ve read a great deal about the oranges.”
Here Bella Zeigerman stopped speaking, and Yaacov Markovitch decided happily that his wife, like him, was a fan of agricultural literature. On the narrow, crowded bookshelf in his house in the village, next to the writings of Jabotinsky, stood all sorts of guides – the mother of wheat and how to improve species, how to plough and plant grain, how to graft a tree without causing pain. Bella Zeigerman knew how to recite Gothe, but it is doubtful that she would be able to memorize, with the same degree of success, the list of insects that threaten to destroy grapevines. When she mentioned oranges, it was because she recalled a line from the Hebrew poet’s poem [she is in love with his work] that had been published in the newspaper.
Humour is found in Sonya’s eyes, which are a couple of millimetres too far apart to be pleasing. It’s found in the way she stands on the shore yelling curses at the long-gone Zeev Feinberg who will return in time. It’s found in Zeev Feinberg’s moustache. And it’s found in some of the ‘lad-ish’ humour – this is in no way a women’s fiction book.
For a while it’s simply history and humour and then there comes a point where the mood is more sombre, the humour sensitive, almost, and whilst it’s not quite that because the story turns ‘sensitive’ on its head, whilst the war trickles in from the beginning, there is a turning point wherein it becomes the focus.
Gundar-Goshen mixes in some politics. The book deals with the beginnings of WWII, its situation for German Jews, whilst also dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which the Jews, their people persecuted in Germany, are in turn persecuting Arabs. Yes, it’s quite a bold statement. German Jews are fleeing Berlin before the major onslaught and in Israel, their ancestral land, they are in a good place. Gundar-Goshen does not say anything directly about the issues, the conflict betweens these conflicts, but there’s a flicker of an opinion.
This isn’t to say the wars are particularly detailed, however. For the most part they are in the background – Zeev Feinberg held an Arab by the throat today but now we’re seeing him at home with his children. The subtext is key. It spills out of the text – this conflict is everyday, a regular happening, and it’s in the ‘minor’ details like Zeev’s day that we see the horror of it.
Amongst this is the shock. It hits a few characters, informs their lives, but one in particular is commented on – Rachel Mandelblum. When in Germany – which she left for Israel, promptly ceasing to speak German, adopting Hebrew instead – Rachel experienced the horror of a murder, a skull being cracked. She can not escape the sound, it haunts her every day. Gundar-Goshen blends this specific horror into the humour of Rachel’s present situation, her pretending not to understand German, being not unhappy but no more than content living with the random butcher who proposed marriage when he saw her in the street. (She had no reason not to agree so she followed him home and had his child.)
The naming, whether cultural or not I’m not sure, is in a first-name-surname form every time. Rather than simply filling pages, it adds to the humour, though I can’t say why exactly.
The translation bares a strong sense of being true to the original. It’s an American translation, definite western words that are most certainly the choices of the translator rather than a choice based on how the text reads, but it’s by no means a bad text. It flows, it translates jokes into a western context for English speakers to understand… you know you’ve got a good translation when it doesn’t stand out.
The ending’s an interesting one for the way Gundar-Goshen refers to the audience, breaking the fourth wall (though there is, throughout, a feeling of that anyway) saying that, hey, she’s about to jump in time, but this is what happened in the interim she’s skipping, and it isn’t much, and this is why she’s had to do it, and so on. There are many books that jump in time for no reason – Gundar-Goshen’s explanation is a blessing.
One Night, Markovitch is superb. It’s fun, it’s serious with good reason and to good effect – it’s just a solid book all round.
July 19, 2016, 8:31 pm
I like the idea of war as a backdrop to more time spent on characters living their lives through it, if that makes sense? Nice review. I am going to keep it mind.
August 23, 2016, 1:29 pm
Laurie: I’d recommend it to most everyone but specifically-talking, I reckon you’d appreciate it quite a bit. It is very clever.