Review: The Sea of Azov

Mostly mellifluous echoes of Chekhov

By Sophie Lewis, May 14, 2009
Eshkol Nevo: poignant tale

Eshkol Nevo: poignant tale

Anne Joseph (Ed)
Five Leaves/World Jewish Relief

Chekhov was born in Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov. More than 100 years later, Anne Joseph first encountered World Jewish Relief here. It is a tenuous connection but appropriate for a collection of stories whose common theme is simply that: connections.

Celebrated names in this rattle-bag of writers include Etgar Keret, Ali Smith and Nicole Krauss, but about half of the 15 contributors were new to me. Some stories were specially commissioned, some reprinted and some specially translated; Jewishness is central to some and irrelevant in others.

The collection makes a shaky start with Karen Maitland’s Mother’s Day. This heavy-handed tale, in which grown-up Ruth’s overbearing mother retains her iron grip even from beyond the grave, awakes unfortunate echoes of The Exorcist when Ruth’s young daughter turns out to be possessed by the hectoring dead woman. Jonathan Wilson’s quirky Goals also disappoints. His wisecracking style only sometimes pays off and the references to popular culture are dated.

Ali Smith’s True Short Story is a sharp concoction of imaginative speculation and autobiographical narrative, full of humane connections. But this story has already been published several times. It is a shame something newer was not chosen instead.

These few frustrations aside, overall, The Sea of Azov rivals the best anthologies for variety and brilliance. Eshkol Nevo’s Flies — appearing here for the first time in English, cleverly translated by Sondra Silverston — is a poignant account of a holidaying teenager’s sympathy for a disabled boy who seems to be neglected by his family.

Our protagonist resolves to come every day and blow the armies of flies off the other boy’s face. But his parents do not respond to his shocked appeals, he gets distracted by a girl and, eventually, our teenager’s life moves on, although his memory of “the boy with the flies” does not fade.

Richard Zimler packs the adult lives of a whole family into his superb contribution, Stealing Memories. While investigating the disappearance of his parents’ treasured Fernand Léger painting, Zimler’s gentle narrator gradually reveals how the older siblings he thought would become his lifelong friends instead conspired and turned against him.

In contrast to Zimler’s realism, Tamar Yellin’s The Reservoir Room is a brief, subtly surreal tale of a woman who makes her home in a round, single-roomed engine-house, owned by the water authority. Yellin judges perfectly the counterpoint between her “crazy” woman’s mystical delight in the spot and the dreary gossip and bureaucracy emanating from the nearby village.

Michelene Wandor’s Jewish Values neatly exemplifies and ironises The Sea of Azov’s theme. Her ageing professor admits to a crucial forgery — in both senses, deceptive and creative — that has nevertheless allowed her to bridge “the vexed worlds of religion and history”. Connections, legitimate or invented, are what living is about.

Sophie Lewis is a writer and translator

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011