Thursday, September 8, 2011
Review of Hoffmann's The Shunra and the Schmetterling, by Leslie Cohen
Yoel Hoffmann The Shunra and the Schmetterling, translated by Peter Cole (New York: New Directions, 2004)
by Leslie Cohen
The Shunra and the Schmetterling is a ramble through the narrator's childhood landscape; the scenes of his formative years sparkle briefly, reminiscent of haiku in their length, style, and impact. Although rendered from the child's-eye point of view, the text is written in rich, sophisticated, and decidedly adult language. Or languages, to be more precise, as Hoffmann introduces Yiddish, Icelandic, French, German, and Aramaic into the text, thus echoing the Israeli streets sounds that typified the era of early statehood.
In the fragmented style that characterizes Hoffmann's fiction, the narrator juxtaposes the momentous with the trivial. Innocent games played in the schoolyard are interspersed between scenes of the death of the narrator's mother, his father's remarriage, and, much later, his father's death. While there is much attention to the details of everyday life—flashing by in a kaleidoscopic array—no attempt is made to interpret them or their emotional impact on the narrator.
In the opening pages of the book Hoffmann writes, "Childhood, as it recedes, becomes....er. My other in her various outlines and my father in his single outline, are, trust me, sufficient." Informing the reader that "My raison d'etre you'll have to seek in biology books," Hoffmann eschews documentation in favor of poetic prose. Indeed, the text is organized into chapters of two to three pages each and further subdivided into sections that resemble the stanzas of a poem. Meaning resides as much in the organization of the text as it does in the words themselves. Readers who are willing to accept lyrical prose in lieu of plot will delight in Hoffman's novella and in the a philosophy of writing that inspires contemplation [Review of Contemporary Fiction]