Outside of Israel, Yirmi Pinkus enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a brilliant comics artist and co-founder (with Rutu Modan) of the Actus Comics Group. Yet in Israel, he has achieved greater fame for his critically acclaimed, award-winning novels. Evan Fallenberg and Yardenne Greenspan have beautifully translated the second of these, the 2012 bestseller Petty Business. It’s a dazzling mosaic of hilarity and heartbreak that boldly goes against the grain of the usual subjects of much of Israeli fiction.
This highly entertaining novel immerses readers in the complicated personal and business relationships among three generations of a pair of lower-middle-class extended families, the Zinmans and the Shlossmans/Saltzmans, both of Polish-Jewish lineage. Pinkus vividly captures the foibles of these bakers, beauticians, clothing stall operators, hairstylists, and grocers during an already forgotten epoch: Tel Aviv of the late 1980s. These were the twilight years of small-business owners, modest grocers, and the wheeler-dealers of the rag trade, before the crushing onslaught of the vast international chain stores and supermarket goliaths that now dominate the Israeli retail landscape. Rarely has an Israeli novelist bestowed such affection and empathic understanding on this nearly invisible sector of society, those terrified of losing their hard-won places in the world.
Even though most of Pinkus’s hardscrabble but openhearted characters recognize that life has shortchanged them, they keep at it relentlessly and with poignant hopefulness. In spite of all their absurdly miscalculated plots and intrigues to make ends meet, a quiet heroism permeates their struggles. As the patriarch of one family sorrowfully observes, “How fragile is the measure of happiness available to the small-time retailer — nine loaves of challah remaining on the shelf at the end of a Friday afternoon are enough to turn a holiday into a day of mourning!” Over all their daily trials and tribulations hovers the pastoral dream of an idyllic vacation in Seefeld, the famous Austrian Alpine village, its lush mountains, waterfalls, and wonderful drink and food so far removed from sweltering and grimy Tel Aviv. But just as their true heart’s desire seems almost within reach, dark storm clouds of a terrible tragedy appear and the true test of these resilient families arrives.
Though it is relatively short, readers may enjoy savoring this picaresque novela few pages at a time; each of its brief chapters constitute such an intense immersion in these characters’ breathless and harried lives. The gifted translators ably render the wild tonal register of the original Hebrew, its tenderness as well as its scatology. (These are the kinds of families whose every digestive mishap becomes the subject of endless mirth and commentary.) Pinkus has a wonderful ear for the speech marking Israel’s ethnic and class divisions and is especially skillful at capturing the sharp Yiddishisms permeating their environment (as one stall owner memorably observes, “Commerce is like kishkes. It goes in on one end and out the other, and what gets absorbed in the middle — that’s what you live off”) and other colloquialisms enlivening the family members’ interactions, their uproarious insults, curses, and laughter. Petty Business is swarming with life, the cacophony of Tel Aviv’s neighborhoods captured in indelible, loving detail, larger-than-life personalities hustling for the crumbs of minute percentages, discounts, and under-the-table payments – the slight but critical distinctions that make all the difference between sinking and staying afloat enough to struggle another day.
No matter how grotesque his characters’ behavior, Pinkus is far too empathic a writer to mock them. Even as we laugh at these grasping and feuding families, they burrow deep into our hearts; it is impossible not to genuinely root for them when their modest dreams threaten to slip away. With each new scheme, long buried feelings suddenly erupt; ribald humor and tender sadness ripple on virtually every page. Petty Business will surely leave its readers hoping that Pinkus’s award-winning first novel will be translated very soon.
Ranen Omer-Sherman is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville and editor of the forthcoming book Amos Oz: The Legacy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.