Fayvel’s Note­book

Philippe Smo­lars­ki; Nichola Lewis, trans.
  • Review
By – November 14, 2014

Maria, a woman who at one time must have been very beau­ti­ful, con­tacts the Jew­ish direc­tor of an insti­tute for Chi­nese stud­ies and presents an old shoe­box stuffed with papers and note­books. By the time he has a chance to look at them, the woman is dead. These incred­i­ble jour­nals describe the life and times of one Fayv­el S, a.k.a. Pavel, a.k.a. Paul, a Jew­ish busi­ness­man’ with con­nections to the Chi­nese under­world, Jew­ish gang­land, and var­i­ous oth­er shady enterprises. 

As the Holo­caust is sweep­ing through Europe, Fayv­el receives word in Chi­na. With Mei Ling, a stun­ning but dan­ger­ous and unsta­ble assas­sin, and Wal­ter, a gay ex-box­er, as body­guards, Fayv­el trav­els into the heart of the con­flict. He meets Maria, an inno­cent, sort of a Jew­ish Vien­nese Princess.’ There begins a mad­cap tale of intrigue, betray­al, love, war, death, and man­gled history. 

With­out triv­i­al­iz­ing the Holo­caust, Philippe Smo­lars­ki man­ages to enter­tain and also enlight­en. The writ­ing seems infor­mal and folksy but still con­veys the back­drop of grim real­i­ty. The War­saw Ghet­to is seen from a dif­fer­ent, almost com­ic, per­spec­tive; yet the hor­ror is there. 

The frame tale — elder­ly Maria bring­ing the tat­tered jour­nals to the coun­cil — works on two lev­els: the res­o­lu­tion for the pro­tag­o­nists is revealed in advance, and emo­tion­al dis­tance is estab­lished. The com­ic and bizarre ele­ments also rein­force that dis­tance, allow­ing the read­er to enjoy the sto­ry, and only lat­er think about the setting. 

This book should be read for entertain­ment: the love sto­ry of Fayv­el and Maria, with tragi­comedic under­tones; the spy vs. spy romp across Poland, Ger­many, France, Spain and else­where; Fayv­el, using his wits, and more­over, chutz­pah rather than brains, man­ages to stay a step ahead of the Nazis most of the time. With fas­ci­nat­ing invent­ed char­ac­ters and his­tor­i­cal fig­ures used fic­ti­tious­ly, Philippe Smo­lars­ki has cre­at­ed a tru­ly sat­is­fy­ing tale. Appendix.

Relat­ed content:

Sydelle Shamah has been lead­ing book club dis­cus­sions for many years, and is a pub­lished sci­ence fic­tion writer. She was pres­i­dent of the Ruth Hyman Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter of Mon­mouth Coun­ty, NJ.

Discussion Questions