From the Moment Bookshelf: A Review of Yitzhak Orpaz
Death of Lysanda: Two Novellas
Yitzhak Orpaz, translated by Richard Flint and David Zaraf
Dalkey Archive Press
By Katie McGinnis
Dalkey Archive’s publication of Yitzhak Orpaz’s Death of Lysanda and Ants earns a place as one of the most important translations of Hebrew literature into English in a decade, and the raw talents of Richard Flint and David Zaraf make this publication a particular treat. The rich prose will prove an inviting respite for readers who are frustrated with translations’ stereotypical lack of elasticity, and others will find the quasi-mystical and darkly whimsical qualities of Orpaz’s narratives, in the tradition of S.Y. Abramovitsh and I.L. Peretz, a delightful continuation of tradtional Hasidic folklore. If one takes nothing else away from Orpaz, it is that Yiddish literature is alive and well in the 21st century, both in Hebrew and English.
In many respects it seems counterproductive to summarize Death of Lysanda which, as a highly symbolist piece that shifts between narrative voices between one sentence to the next, is not entirely sure what it is doing itself. This technique however allows for an honest but grounded story of a man’s descent into madness. But if one must summarize it, the novella concerns an eccentric taxidermist and his creation, Lysanda, who he conjured while on a “rocking chair on long, lonely evenings.” A tale as much about the insides and outsides of flesh as it is the rooms where we cloister ourselves away from the world and the roofs to which we flee, Death of Lysanda unravels into a haunting story of obsession and isolation, each page rife with hints of psalmistic beauty: “How shall I describe Lysanda? […] Oh, words, sententious, treacherous words—what shall I do with you? Cut out my tongue, hangmen, find me a new tongue […]”
Continuing with the theme of societal alienation, Ants showcases the interactions of a couple in the midst of a severe marital crisis, as a domestic ant infestation escalates into colossal proportions. As the couple becomes increasingly isolated from their neighbors and the world, the infestation manifests itself into a metaphor and becomes the object of cultish devotion. As in Death of Lysanda, Orpaz is concerned with themes of liminality and space, and his ability to reconcile somber observations of the world we inhabit with the humorous theatrics of his one-of-a-kind characters is nothing short of genius.
There has always been much to be discovered in Orpaz’s works and the world is incredibly lucky to have such profound texts in accomplished translation. Buy this, read this, love this: this indulgence is well worth the price.