Peter Manseau like the narrator of his 2008 novel Songs of the Butcher's Daughter is an unbelieving Catholic who worked in a Jewish Cultural Organization which saved Yiddish books, getting most of them from elderly immigrant Jews. Manseau like his narrator learned Yiddish. Then Manseau wrote a wonderful novel about an immigrant Jewish poet named Itzik Malpesh, who calls himself the last Yiddish poet in America.
This novel intertwines two stories: the narrator, a college educated unbelieving Cathlolic searcher searching for a vocation, love, and meaning in life; and Itzik Malpesh, who wants his Yiddish poems to be translated into English and the huge Yiddish book collection to be saved. The narrator decides to translate Itzik Malpesh's autobiography, so this novel alternates Malpesh's autobiography (each chapter begins with a letter from the Yiddish alphabet) and the translator's notes and his story. This wonderful novel is about working class writers, immigrants, language, translation, and homeland in the land of letters.
Itzik Malpesh's story has high adeventure, starting from his birth during the infamous Kishinev program in Kishinev, Russia. Like many Yiddish poets, Malpesh starts out as a cheder boy, studying in religious school but sneaking on the side to read secular Russian books (just like my great-grandfather). Then he starts his adventures, as he's forced to run away to Odessa and then immigrate to New York where he becomes works as as garment worker, writes poetry, and becomes a sweatshop poet, laboring 16 hours per day and writing his poems at night. The author Manseau clearly loves the group of Yiddish poets who actually worked in sweatshops 16 hours a day and then wrote poetry. In an NPR interview Manseau says Yiddish has as its hero der Kelene menschele, The Little Man, and the little Man (rather like Charlie Chaplin's tramp) also know as Itsik Malpesh, the poet, is the hero of this tale, so this novel is about two working class writers: Malpesh, a sweatshop poet; and the narrator, a warhouse worker whose job is to unpack books.
The narrator on the job falls in love with a ball t'shuva, a young Jewish woman returning to Jewish Orthodixy who starts working at the Jewish Cultural Organization; of course, the young woman, seeing that the narrator knows more Yiddish than she does, believes the narrator is Jewish, and he doesn't correct her. She finds out, of couse, and flee, complaining to their boss. So the narrator runs to Baltimore to help Malpesh save this huge collection of Yiddish books from the wrecking ball. This is a wonderful Yiddish novel but it's not in Yiddish. In the novel the narrator through Malpesh learing to typeset falls in love with the Yiddish alphabet: "The alef's curves and angles; beys, like a cresting wave; Gimel, called "camel" for a reason, with its head looking like here and there like a beast in the desert .... I came to understand the kabbalists' lessons about the significance of letters in the building blocks of creation. Each told a story if one took the time to read it."
The novel is as the printer Minskovsky says to young Itsik Malpesh about making words your homeland: "Make words your homeland, Itsik. Make them you lover as well. i swear to you, if you do, you will never be homeless and you will never be heartbroken. You will rise each morning and know that the world is yours, no matter in which corner ifit you wake." And the novel is about translation as the translator muses about learning first a new language and then how to translate poetry and a world from the new language into English; "translation is an act of intimacy." Through translation we can journey into antoher world. Manseau has learned to be a wonderful translator of the Yiddish world and Yiddish sweatshop poets into English. The novel is also a wonderful tribute to working class writers.
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