Songs for the Butcher's Daughter by Peter Manseau
Itisk Malpesh is an elderly Yiddish poet living in Baltimore. He was born in the middle of the 1904 progrom in the city of Kishinev, which was once part of the Soviet Union and is now the capital of Moldova. A Christian mob burst in on his mother while she is in the final throes of labour and are shamed, both by this unexpected sight, and by that of the raised, angry fists of the four-year-old daughter of the town’s kosher butcher.
Peter Manseau’s debut novel, Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, is presented as a collaboration between Malpesh and his translator. The bulk of the book is made up of Malpesh’s memoirs. The young poet grows up to believe that he and his mother’s young defender, Sasha Bimko, are bashert – fated to be together.
Though what’s left of the Bimko family leaves town shortly after his birth and he never actually meets Sasha, he is certain that their lives are entwined. Malpesh learns his alef-beys and grows up wanting to be a writer of poetry. The words that spill out of him are written for and about Sasha, his muse and the unseen object of his affections. Even when he discovers that she has left the country and journeyed to Palestine, even when he too leaves Kishinev behind, travelling first to Odessa and then (reluctantly) across the ocean to America, even then, when he is half way across the world from her, the fibres of their connection continue to stretch and his obsession is not dulled; if anything, it intensifies, it drives him.
Manseau’s novel is very much concerned with language. It is partly a celebration of tongues dead and dying and partly an examination of how language can both isolate and liberate the members of immigrant communities. Early in the novel, Malpesh bemusedly observes Jewish Hebraists and Yiddishists bickering over the relative merits and relevance of their chosen method of expressing themselves, while much later, his poor grasp of English limits his social and economic prospects in New York. His language is his tie to his past and to his culture, but it also ghettoizes him and he ends up, along with other Yiddish poets and writers, working in a sweatshop.
Malpesh’s life story is interspersed with notes from the translator of his memoirs, a young gentile who comes to know Malpesh via a job at a Yiddish book warehouse in New York. The translator-to-be is a 21-year-old graduate student with a working knowledge of Hebrew who has been using his time in the stifling warehouse to learn Yiddish from the discarded books. He is further spurred to learn the language by his budding relationship with his colleague Clara, an increasingly devout young Jewish student who is keen to decipher the correspondence of her great-grandmother.
These interjections, initially quasi-academic in tone, form the basis of a second narrative strand, one that becomes increasingly interwoven with Malpesh's story; they also add another layer to the novel’s relationship with language. Following one particular scene, the translator’s note picks out a line of dialogue (one that stood out and felt rather jarring) and explains just what it was he was attempting to convey. The translator explains how some Yiddish terms have no English equivalent and some English terms have no Yiddish equivalent and how, by necessity, a middle ground must be found, even if it is not always as linguistically satisfactory as one may wish.
“Translation is an intimate act,” we are told. It is not just a case of rendering one language into another – there are issues of nuance and rhythm to consider; it is an act of negotiation, a dance. While some of his interjections are self-evident, and do rather state the obvious, some succeed in spinning the previous passage in a new direction. It is therefore rather galling that the novel’s main failing is one of language. Though Manseau wrangles the twin threads of his narrative towards a satisfying conclusion, his prose is inescapably flat. Some of the writing is awkward and clunky, and it is not always easy to discern just how much of this is intentional, just how much of this awkwardness is there to highlight the fact that this is, supposedly, a text in translation.
Malpesh’s story also veers frequently towards cliché. His is an over-familiar tale: the immigrant narrative, the struggle, the grubbiness, the glow of the new world, the man and woman separated by continents but destined to one day meet. But just as one is sagging under the sense of having read variations on this story so often in the past, the translator will break in with the comment that “Malpesh seems to have written about himself as if he lived in a world of Yiddish fiction rather than Yiddish fact.” This is in an intentionally generic quality to Malpesh’s story and the translator often references other Yiddish writers, with Sholem Aleichem (on whose stories the musical Fiddler on the Roof was loosely based) being the light that burns brightest. Kishinev, it is also pointed out, was a much larger city than the tight knot of streets described in Malpesh’s memoirs: the realtionship between fact and fiction is often subject to scrutiny. Yet despite all this self-aware contextualising, Manseau’s novel wears its ideas heavily. The novel is fascinating in places – particularly in its evocation of what it is to be considered lexically dextrous in one language and then thrust into a situation where you can barely understand a word – but the narrative never really transcends its baggage and the stylistically flat prose remains a real problem: Malpesh never convinces as a poet.
Creatively it doesn’t come close to Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union which elevated Yiddish into a kind of rich, Raymond Chandler-esque slang, but Manseau does make one think about the language in other ways. In later sections of the novel, Yiddish is used as a weapon, with a formerly pious Jew (who was kidnapped and drafted into the army) translating the New Testament into Yiddish in a bid to convert other Jews to Christianity. Yiddish here is the living line between the present and the lost world of the past but it can also be used transgressively. Words matter, they can free you, they can trap you; it is no accident therefore that, when Malpesh is sent against his will to America, he is groggy from a cocktail laced with printers’ ink.