Translated classic had me 'Spel-bound

Grigory Kanovich

Devilspel (Noir Press, £12) by Grigory Kanovich

EVERY great writer has at the core of his or her writing, a theme or a vision. For Zola, it was taking up the cause of the working man's life in France during the late 19th century. For Dickens, it was the struggle of the ignored underclass in England of his time.

Grigory Kanovich has dedicated his professional life, primarily in his novels Shtetl Love Song and Devilspiel, to the portrayal of Jewish life in the shtetl of eastern Europe, specifically in Lithuania. It is at the centre of his being and his writing, and the reader comes to know the world Kanovich experienced himself in his youth and which shaped his vision.

Kanovich loved his fellow Jewish painter, Marc Chagall, especially Chagall's paintings of the luftmensch, the Jew floating above the town. Chagall represented the Jew as not rooted in society, never fully at home because of discrimination all around him.

However, although inspired by Chagall, Kanovich's writing is not like Chagall's paintings. Kanovich's characters are deeply rooted in Lithuanian society, part of the very soil they tread. That is their home. The inherent tragedy of his work is the realisation that they never belong in spite of their centuries-long connection to the country and its people and culture.

In this sense, then, Kanovich's work transcends Lithuania and represents a broader eastern European tragedy -- the ugly truth that a people committed to its country, be it Hungary, Romania or Poland, were not considered true members of their society and were systematically murdered en masse when the opportunity arose.

Still, for Kanovich, there is nostalgia for a better time, the time of his youth, when life seemed pleasant and hopeful. Hence, the title Shtetl Love Song. Published in 2012, but now translated into English, the novel is set in the interwar period with a cast of lively and memorable characters that evokes a bygone era of shtetl life with its sense of community, Jewish life and strong family relationships.

As the Germans invade, some escape to the Soviet Union, some are trapped. At the end of the war, one of the main characters, Hirshke, returns to his home town of Jonava and realises that "whoever allows the dead to fall into oblivion will himself be justly consigned to oblivion by future generations". Kanovich has taken it upon himself to ensure that they will never be forgotten. It is his sacred task.

One of the characters says that "you can't eat a walnut whole. You need to crack it open to get to the essence". This ostensibly simple statement sums up the author's artistic ethos. Individuals are opened up, their feelings and actions probed, their characters revealed and a whole community, an entire shtetl and its life come alive. It is that revelation that constitutes the love song that is the novel.

If Shtetl Love Song is a paean to a lost world, Devilspel is, as the title suggests, a darker vision of that same world. It is as if the loss and the pain had been internalised. Although there are noble characters, such as the empathetic Christian Cheslavas, the admirable Danuta Hadassah, the idealistic Elisheva, the town of Mishkine, and the world it represents is irredeemably lost to the dark forces at work in history.

The long term future looks only bleak. Young love is extinguished, the image of the graveyard pervades the entire novel and the novel ends with the caw of the ravens as the last sounds of the novel, instead of the raucous chatter of the disappeared Jewish community.

And yet, as the Canadian writer Anne Hébert wrote, there is no such thing as a literature of despair. Every writer who reaches out to his or her reader, communicates a vision, no matter how sad, participates in the transmission of empathetic understanding and creates hope for a better world. Loss is never truly definitive and redemption always possible. It is this message that Kanovich's writing succeeds in evoking and it is the triumph of his novelistic universe.

The theme may be one of loss and pain, but the writing is engaging. The characters are intriguing and the action convincing. Reading the novel, one has the sense of being in the hands of a master craftsman whose work will live on even if the people in his world did not.

Although deeply rooted in the pre-war Lithuanian shtetl, the novels encompass the reality of all of eastern Europe and beyond. Their tragic, yet powerfully suggestive cautionary quality, accounts for their universal appeal. Kanovich's novels have been translated into 13 languages and he is the recipient of numerous prizes and honours.

Shtetl Love Song and Devilspel will no doubt constitute an important part of the literary canon of eastern European and world literature and stand as a lasting legacy that readers everywhere will reflect on for generations.

DR PAUL SOCKEN, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of Waterloo

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