English majors, remember this term? "Picaresque." From Encyclopedia Britannica online: "usually a first-person narrative, relating the adventures of a rogue or low-born adventurer [picaro in Spanish] as he drifts from place to place and from one social milieu to another."
This describes Peter Manseau's Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, which is the fictional memoir of Itsik Malpesh. Itsik is born in Russia in the early 1900s, stows away aboard a ship bound for the U.S., works in a sweatshop in New York, and spends his nights writing Yiddish poetry, all the while dreaming of his lost love Sasha Bimko, the butcher's daughter, to whom he dedicates his awful verses. He lives a long life, filled with adventures both believable and far-fetched, and writes his memoirs in Yiddish as an old man.
Framing Itsik's story is the commentary by his translator, a Yiddish-speaking Catholic scholar who works at a Jewish book repository. By structuring the book this way, Manseau focuses our attention on the role of language in how we interpret a story. The translator stresses that much of what Itsik writes doesn't transfer into English very well, yet since the whole book is fiction, what is Manseau saying? That all words are suspect? This is a fictional account of a translated version of an unreliable memoir. And while it works most of the time, sometimes it doesn't. (And what are we to make of Itsik's abysmal poetry? Is it better in Yiddish? But since it was really never written in Yiddish, is Manseau just playing a trick on us?)
It isn't like I obsessed about this language thing all through the book. In my book club the discussion focused mostly on plot points (and problems). It's an entertaining read, and pretty funny in places. If this book were a movie, it would be by Woody Allen, with Allen himself playing Itsik and one of Allen's straight men (Tony Roberts, but younger?) playing the unnamed translator. Sasha Bimko (who does eventually show up) could be played by any number of Allen's free-spirited co-stars (Madeline Kahn? Penelope Cruz, if she was Russian?). Indeed, much of the story's outsized action seems like it's drawn from a hodgepodge of different Allen movies, which, if you think about it, often feature Allen in a picaresque role.
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.