Pet­ty Business

Yir­mi Pinkus; Evan Fal­l­en­berg and Yardenne Greenspan; trans.

  • Review
By – November 9, 2017

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.

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