Life & Culture

The Book of Paradise review: Moonlit nights, pious Jews and demons

Poet Itzik Manger creates in prose a biblical fantasia, full of references to King David, Solomon and the Psalms


The Book of Paradise
By Itzik Manger
Pushkin Press, £10.99

In recent years there has been a revival of interest in the great Yiddish writer, Itzik Manger (1901-69), with The World According to Itzik: Selected Poetry and Prose and now his novel, The Book of Paradise.

Manger was born in Czernowitz in Bukovina in 1901. Czernowitz, now in Ukraine, was home to an extraordinary generation of Jewish writers that included Paul Celan and Rose Ausländer.

Manger moved to Warsaw in 1928, where he published ten books in ten years, then to Paris in 1939, where he published The Book of Paradise, “my happiest book”, and to Britain, the United States and, finally, Israel, where he died in 1969.

The Book of Paradise is about the central character, Samuel, angels and miracles, tzaddikim (“the holy sainted ones”), pious Jews and demons. With its moonlit nights and “lovelorn journeymen tailors”, it’s hard to imagine a world more different from late 1930s Europe.

It’s more like a biblical fantasia, full of references to King David, Solomon and the Psalms. It moves between Paradise and the world of Samuel’s home village, which is like something out of Sholem Aleichem.

The language shifts constantly between the elevated and the low. Samuel and his friend see King David sitting under the shade of an oak tree, strumming on a harp. “This guy wrote the Psalms?” Samuel asks his friend.

A few moments later they see Adam and Eve (“We watched as two figures approached the Tree of Knowledge”). “There it is,” one says. “The very spot where you had me taste that damned verfluchten apple.” The woman sighed,

“Ja, ja, Adam, mein Schatz, there you have it. That veffluchte snake, she talked me into it.”

There is something joyous about Manger’s playful language. As the American writer Dara Horn wrote in her review, “This Yiddish writer insisted that being human means retaining one’s right to joy and uplift — a legacy from Eden that, despite the horrors of Jewish history, still endures.”

Less than a year after The Book of Paradise first appeared in France in 1939, Manger fled for his life to Britain. In order to improve his English, he tried translating Shakespeare’s sonnets into Yiddish.

On a late summer’s night in 1943, my father who had known Manger in Warsaw, came across him at Edgware Road Tube station seeking refuge from the Blitz. Manger was “hunched over his small leather suitcase” which he carried with him wherever he went, it contained all his worldly possessions — his manuscripts.

The exercise was to find a German equivalent to the English word, and then to find from memory a Yiddish equivalent to the German. “No one is as lonely as a Yiddish poet,” Manger would say.

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