Seeds in the Desert By Mendel Mann, translated by Heather Valencia
A new translation from the Yiddish Book Center's White Goat Press
The early years of the State of Israel are usually associated with a precarious military situation, waves of immigrants, the idealistic kibbutz movement, and the atmosphere of a hard scrabble society trying to find its footing. But the country was also home to a new wave of Yiddish literature, often written by refugees who had arrived from Europe after the Holocaust. This is the setting of the opening stories in Seeds in the Desert, a collection by Yiddish writer Mendel Mann published in an English translation by Heather Valencia as the inaugural book in a new venture by the Center to publish Yiddish literature in translation.
“The presence of the ancient landscape pervades the first group of stories, and within that landscape the characters are living out their own traumas,” Heather tells Pakn Treger. “He doesn’t in any sense draw any kind of rosy-colored picture, but shows the darker sides of the development of the state. He shows the ambiguities and the difficulties of life in that time.”
As the collection progresses, the stories move backward chronologically, taking the reader through Mann’s experiences in the postwar Soviet Union and prewar Poland, a structure that mirrors the characters’ experiences of dealing with their own traumatic histories and changed circumstances.
“All these different characters just keep stumbling upon something that reminds them of their worst memories, and it interrupts their efforts to rebuild their lives,” says Madeleine Cohen, the Center’s director of translation and collection initiatives. “I think it’s a really compelling exploration of identity and how people try to handle trauma and move forward.”
What the Critics Say
"Kerner in midber: dertseylungen (1966), the volume of forty short stories written in the 1950s and early 1960, from which Valencia translated, is a fine choice to introduce Mann’s writing to a wide audience in English, because this volume shows the range of his stories and experiences, as well as his unique narrative style. These stories take place in Israeli cities, towns, and villages, in the post-war Soviet Union, and in Poland of the interwar period. However, it is often very difficult to tell where the stories actually take place, because they express an experience of dislocation and total disorientation. Many of them begin with or contain sentences such as 'Did anyone from your family survive?' 'You must hear me out,' or 'I think I know you . . . we’ve met somewhere before,' which indicate the urgency of telling the story as a way to deal with trauma, guilt, and despair. Some of these stories are told by a first-person narrator; others by an omniscient third-person narrator who relates the experiences of lonely, uprooted refugees. They are all extremely powerful, but in the context of the history of Yiddish literature, the most distinctive stories are those set in Israel."
—Shachar Pinsker for In geveb (read the full review)