For the Relief of
there were no snipers, as there are for hands that reach out of the
ghettos; no dogs, as for hands that reach out from the cracks in boxcar
floors; no angels waiting, as they always do, for hands that reach out
from chimneys into ash-clouded skies. "
Reviewed by Brian George
Englander’s debut collection of short fiction caused something of a
sensation in the literary world when it was published in 1999. It’s not
hard to see why. These nine stories, which chronicle the experiences of
a range of Jewish people, in settings as diverse as wartime eastern
Europe, Russia under Stalin, contemporary New York and Jerusalem,
communicate something profound and universal about humanity.
achieves this with a prose style that manages to combine wit, dark
humour and even slapstick farce with an eye for what makes human
existence genuinely tragic.
The opening story in the collection, The twenty-seventh man,
describes the fate of a group of Jewish writers summarily condemned to
death on Stalin’s orders. What makes the story original is that the
party of condemned men consists of twenty-six established writers, many
quite famous, plus one unknown amateur scribbler whose name has been
put on the list by a clerical error. This enables Englander to add
simultaneous layers of pathos and absurdity to the central depiction of
the brutal consequences of bureaucratic totalitarianism. As the writers
spend their last night crammed together in disgusting police cells, the
unknown, Pinchas Pelovits, wrestles with the story he has been writing.
Just before the execution he recites his completed story, and is
rewarded with the comment from one of the famous writers that he has
produced a masterpiece. Englander, though, wants to ensure that we
don’t jump to any facile conclusions about the redemptive power of art.
He finishes the story with a clear-eyed, but not sensationalised,
depiction of the actual execution. The sense of loss, of the horror of
inhumanity, is extremely sharp:
atop the other two. He was shot five or six times, but being such a big
man and such a strong man, he lived long enough to recognise the crack
of the guns and know that he was dead.
Not all the
stories have subject-matter as harrowing as this. In Wig we watch
middle-aged Ruchama act out her obsessive quest to regain the lost
beauty of her youth by making the perfect wig for herself. Ruchama’s
obsession leads her into a tangle of evasiveness, lying and eventual
public humiliation. In the final words of the story Englander shows his
remarkable talent for merciless exposure of his characters’ absurdities
while simultaneously getting the reader to empathise with the passions
that drive them:
feel people looking, the whole of the city watching.
Worth every penny and every shame, she thinks, for one slow spin, hair
on her head and mirror in her hand, leaning back, beautiful.
collection is suffused with a strong sense of the absurd. In
of Park Avenue the main character experiences an unusual
conversion in the back of a New York taxi, realising in a sudden flash
that he is "the bearer of a Jewish soul". He sets about acting on this
epiphany with all the zeal of the new convert, causing his wife to
react with an antagonistic incredulity that again manages to combine
hilarity with profound sadness:
waiting for your midlife crisis. But I expected something I
could handle, a small test. An imposition. Something to rise above and
prove my love for you in a grand display of resilience. Why couldn’t
you have turned into a vegan? Or a liberal Democrat? Slept with your
secretary for real.
extremely good at taking an
apparently banal, absurd premise and letting the situation uncoil to
reveal deep truths about his characters and their relationships. In the
collection’s title story a rabbi gives a man whose wife is refusing to
sleep with him special dispensation to visit a prostitute, with a view
to relieving the "unbearable urges" of the title and ultimately to save
the marriage. There is a great deal of humour in the story, but at the
same time it unfolds with a grim inevitability, leading to unforeseen
consequences that are genuinely tragic.
Every story in
is of a high standard, but if I had to choose one that stands out it
would have to be The
Tumblers. During the second world war, a ragged
group of orthodox Jews from eastern Europe find themselves compelled to
impersonate a troupe of acrobats in order to avoid being transported to
the death camps. Englander manages the difficult task of exploiting the
vein of absurd, derisive humour inherent in the situation while at the
same time making us keenly aware of the terrible historical tragedy his
characters are trapped in:
It was an
absurd undertaking. But then
again, Mendel thought, no more unbelievable than the reality from which
they’d escaped, no more unfathomable than the magic of disappearing
Jews… why not pass as acrobats and tumble across the earth until they
found a place where they were welcome?
George lives in South Wales. His poetry and short fiction have appeared
in literary journals, and he was a prizewinner in the 2001 Rhys Davies
Competition. His first collection of short stories, Walking the Labyrinth, is
published by Stonebridge Publications.
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Awards: Winner: Pen/Malamud AWARD, 2000; Sue Kaufman Award for First Fiction, 2000
Englander was born in New York in 1970. His short fiction has
won prestigious awards and has appeared in numerous anthologies. His
story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, was published in
1999. The Ministry of Special Cases, his first novel, was published in
2007. Englander was selected as one of “20 Writers for the 21st
Century” by The New Yorker. After living for some years in Jerusalem,
he currently lives in New York City.
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other reviewers thought:
New York Times
San Francisco Chronicle