Grigori Kanovich

Mestechkovi romans Shtetl Romance
Novel. 2012. 420 pages
Foreign rights: Germany, Lithuania, Macedonia, Poland, UK/ US

A marvellous family novel, wise and pittoresque on the last 20 years of life in the Eastern European SHTETL. A moving piece of literature of a loss of the Jewish communities.

Shlojmke, a young taylor, has to serve in the Lithuanian army for two years leaving his sweetheart Chanke behind. Their love will endure and he will marry her against his strict mother's wish. It is their son nicknamed »Hirschele« who turns out to be the author himself. Grigori Kanovich tells us the story of his own life here, of his family during the 20ies and 30ies. A nostalgic and touching account despite of major threats and shifts full of sympathy and of course a bit melancholic.

Shtetl Love Story is in two parts: Book One, set in Jonava in the early interwar period, is the love song of Hirschke’s (Grigory’s) parents; of Mama Hennie patiently waiting for her Shleimke to finish his military service. The other characters all perform their stately dance around Hennie: her mother-in-law Rokha, known as the ‘Samurai in a skirt’ for her sharp tongue, and her long-suffering husband, a cobbler whose mouth seems permanently full of both nails and wise saws. There’s also ‘Almost-a-Jew’, the local policeman, Vincas Gedraitis, who speaks Yiddish as fluently as those he watches over. All these and more are drawn by Grigory Kanovich in sympathetic detail against a backdrop of small-town life that is as vivid as anything in Tolstoy. In Book Two, Kanovich sings his own love song – of life in the Jonava backwater, as people only become aware at the last moment of the gathering war clouds. The family argues about whether Hirshke should go to the Yiddish or the Hebrew school, while firebrand brother-in-law Shmulik castigates Shleimke for worrying about ‘what is going on in our own souls and heads’ rather than ‘the evil plans of that nutcase Adolph Hitler’. Kanovich weaves into his narrative the long-held beliefs Jews clung to in a dangerous and unpredictable world. As the banker husband of Hennie’s employer says: ‘For Jews, the future is an unreliable bank; they deposit all their hopes in it and then it turns out to be completely bankrupt’. And later, as they are warned that the Germans are on the move, Rokha shrugs: ‘Such is our cursed fate – to flee from wherever we were settled to somewhere else from where there’s nowhere else to run.’ Hirshke and his parents ran to the Soviet Union and somehow escaped the Holocaust. As they lie in a hay loft en route, Hirshke reflects on ‘the deep, impenetrable silence … only the pungent, peaceful scent of cut hay and a vision of a world not desecrated either by ungodly hatred or bloodshed’. Revisiting Jonava at the war’s end, he realises that ‘whoever allows the dead to fall into oblivion will himself be justly consigned to oblivion by future generations’.

Kanovich about himself:
»I am no Jewish author, since I write in Russian. No Russian author, since I write about Jews. And no Lithuanian author, because it is not the Lithuanian language I engage in.«