Off the Shelf: A novel translated from...

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Hebrew: “Victorious”

What purpose should a psychologist’s work serve? This question forms the basis for Yishai Sarid’s intriguing novel “Victorious” (Restless Books). Abigail, the first-person narrator, used to work as a military psychologist for the Israeli army. She was so good at her job that she helped design programs to better enable soldiers to do their jobs more efficiently and safely. She was also able to weed out those unable to handle the most difficult and dangerous assignments. Now, retired, she works with soldiers who suffer from post-traumatic distress syndrome.

Two events return her thoughts to the army: she’s asked by the new Army chief of staff to help his soldiers prepare for the next war, one he believes will greatly challenge them. At the same time, her only child, her son Shauli, is set to begin his army service and has chosen to take part in an elite force. At first, Abigail’s purpose seems to be helping the soldiers, but that comes into question as readers learn exactly what she does: is Abigail’s job to keep them sane, or is she molding them into better killing machines? Abigail might say that the two purposes are the same: the only way to help these soldiers is to keep them alive and that means teaching them better ways to kill before being killed. Will this change, though, if it’s her own son who is in danger.

“Victorious” offers an absorbing and challenging look at the Israeli army and Israeli military culture. The work offers no firm answers, just Abigail’s ability to see the complexities of life or, at times, her desire to simplify them. Readers and book clubs will find much to ponder and discuss.

Spanish: “Canción”

When the narrator of “Canción” by Eduardo Halfon (Bellevue Literary Press) is invited to a conference in Japan featuring Lebanese writers, he begins to review his Lebanese grandfather’s life, particularly the time his grandfather was kidnapped by Guatemalan guerillas in 1967. However, that is a deceptively simple description of this novel because the author and narrator are one and the same, which means the line between fact and fiction is blurred. 

That is not the only identity conundrum: the narrator and his family are Jewish, which means that some at the conference don’t see him as Lebanese. Plus, when his grandfather left the Middle East in 1917, Lebanon did not exist as a country: it was still part of Syria. However, what will impress readers are the narrator’s descriptions of life in Guatemala. Readers may be shocked at the massacres that took place by government soldiers and the tactics used by the guerillas in response. 

“Canción” meanders backward and forward in time, forcing readers to piece together what happened in the past and what is occurring in the present day. Those looking for straight narrative won’t find it here. However, those able to follow Halfon’s non-linear train of thought will have much to enjoy.


French: “The Ghetto Within” 

Why write a novel about your grandfather, rather than a biography? Fiction permits an author to imagine thoughts and feelings he otherwise couldn’t relate. That’s true for “The Ghetto Within” by Santiago H. Amigorena (HarperVia). Vicente Rosenberg, Amigorena’s grandfather, left Poland for Argentina in 1928 in order to escape his family and become his own person. However, by the time the 1940s arrive, he fears for his mother and siblings who remain in Poland. Although he mentioned to his mother in a letter that she should move to Argentina, he never insisted or thought of returning to Poland to bring her to live with him, his wife and his children. His happy, separate world seemed to be enough, that is until he truly begins to understand what is really happening in Europe.

Amigorena juxtaposes Rosenberg’s increasing despair about what might be happening to his family in Poland with factual reports of what was really occurring at the time. Although Rosenberg tries to learn the truth, the reality is often far worse than he can imagine. As he discovers more, his life begins to fray, as does his connection to his wife and children. The question becomes whether he will be able to come to terms with his guilt or if his life will be defined by it.

“The Ghetto Within” is well done, but difficult to read – not because of its prose, but its subject matter. Amigorena was young when his grandfather died, but he did read, at least in the novel, the letters his great-grandmother wrote to Rosenberg. The author succeeds in painting a portrait of a man divided by his desire to form his own life and his obligations to his mother and siblings. It is also a portrayal of how the agony of one decision informed his life until its end.