Todd Hasak-Lowy’s conceptually daring and linguistically nimble debut collection of stories, The Task of This Translator, evokes the schlemiel tradition of Jewish literature as it features youngish, cerebral protagonists adrift both professionally and personally. “The smarter-than-average, smaller-than- average Israeli man” of the opening story “was single again after a three-year marriage to a woman taller than him, who doomed the marriage by formally announcing her reluctance to reproduce at any time with her husband despite the implications of their marriage contract, though they both agree now, not that they talk much, that it was for the best they never made another person.” This dazzling bit of portraiture illustrates both the originality of this fresh new voice and the literary tradition from whence it comes. The strongest stories of the collection engage with the moral weight of our blood-soaked past century in human history through immersing its characters in farcical situations, which rapidly spiral out of control. In “On the Grounds of the Complex Commemorating the Nazis’ Treatment of the Jews” (the most powerful story of the collection), Hasak-Lowy dramatizes the fecklessness of efforts to memorialize victims of the Holocaust and the legacy of Jewish rupture that inexorably persists through an altercation between an Israeli and an American Jew at Yad Vashem. In the title story of the collection, the foundering efforts of an ill-trained translator to facilitate dialogue between his Eastern European client and the client’s estranged family demonstrates, quite literally, the inability of language to convey the extent of both human atrocity and remorse. Weaker stories in the collection will strike some readers as perhaps too clever, as affected, finally, rather than affecting. Yet the stronger stories announce the arrival of a startling talent on the literary scene.
Samuel I. Bellman is professor emeritus at California State Polytechnic University of Pomona. He has been writing on Jewish American writers since 1959.