Thursday, April 17, 2014

Translate This Book | Children's Mate by Bella Shaier

Background: Children's Mate by Bella Shaier is an Israeli book originally published in 2011 by the New Library. It's comprised of three stories: the eponymous opening novella "Children's Mate", a shorter novella "Galit and Gordon", and finally a short story "Double".

What it's about: The main story is the opening novella, itself a collection of five stories that follow a group of children in a Soviet apartment complex. The stories are fairly independent of each other (with recurring characters, and the shared complex of course), but together form a fascinating and touching portrait of childhood (and particularly Jewish childhood) in the Soviet Union. "Galit and Gordon" tells the story of an Israeli couple across decades, presenting a perspective on class, race, and love. "Double", meanwhile, tackles immigration and position, as well as aging and disability... all in the span of ten pages.

Why it deserves to be translated: Children's Mate is a curiously broad book. It has an interesting story continuity, from the early pages which deal with childhood (indeed, specifically early childhood, with none of our children passing age six), to the middle story which looks at an unlikely and passive couple from early adulthood through to middle age, and finally to an older woman whose struggles make her position almost as precarious as that of a child's. More interesting is the fact that each of these stories centers around a different status of character - children (particularly of Jewish origin) in the Soviet Union, ordinary Israeli adults in Tel Aviv, and Russian new immigrant to Israel who speaks neither the language nor sees particularly well, instead forced to rely on others to get by.

Truth be told, it's the two outside stories that deserve more attention. "Galit and Gordon" is a familiar sort of story about relationships and growth, but with an interesting background about Israeli culture clashes that still doesn't make the story quite enough to justify translation on its own. However, the truly brilliant "Children's Mate" does, and I think that's the sort of story that can belong anywhere.

"Children's Mate" is fascinating for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it does an excellent job of getting in the mind of its child characters, without making those either unnaturally precocious or simplistically unrealistic. The kids sound and think like children their age would, misunderstanding adults and struggling with new realizations just as I remember from my own childhood. Shaier finds a fantastic balance between telling the children's stories and showing us the grown-up world around them, revealing to us painful adult truths through the eyes of those who don't fully understand the consequences yet.

Shaier's particular emphasis on Jewish children is especially revealing - we see a series of small incidents with small Jewish children living in a coldly anti-Semitic Soviet Union, sometimes recognizing incidents as what they are, sometimes misconstruing them as children often do. One of the little girls at some point mulls over the differences between the different Jewish children in the building, noting her luck that unlike a different character, her parents don't speak Yiddish to each other and so her Jewishness isn't apparent to the other children.

Finally, "Double" tells a frank, painful story about a new immigrant in Israel, facing struggles at home with her son-in-law (whose decision to move to Israel essentially forced her out of her home), struggles with learning a new language, struggles with her deteriorating eyesight, and ultimately a fundamental struggle leading a normal life. In ten precise pages, Shaier presents an entire world rarely given much attention - that of the immigrant who has not successfully integrated into Israeli society. This story works best understanding Israeli demands of integration (and a generational expectation when it comes to language and culture), but I think it stands alone as an excellent assessment of immigration struggles, as well as aging.

Translate this book! Children's Mate is a wonderfully written book, spanning topics and generations and issues. It's interesting, intelligent and does not rely too much on a certain cultural understanding, while simultaneously introducing readers to different ideas and worlds. The writing is consistently clear, with a style that adjusts subtly according to the type of story - childlike in "Children's Mate", coolly mature in "Galit and Gordon", and quietly uncertain in "Double". This is an excellent example of Israeli literature, well-deserving of a wider audience and greater appreciation.

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