The Can­vas

Ben­jamin Stein; Bri­an Zumha­gen, trans.
  • Review
By – October 23, 2012

When you write exper­i­men­tal fic­tion you run the risk of your ambi­tious intel­li­gence over­whelm­ing the more pro­sa­ic plot of your sto­ry. You can gen­er­al­ly gauge the suc­cess of exper­i­men­tal fic­tion in the extent to which the tech­nique adds to the sto­ry and not the oth­er way around. In his new book, The Can­vas, the Ger­man nov­el­ist Ben­jamin Stein runs into this ambi­gu­i­ty but emerges the bet­ter for it. Stein’s exper­i­men­tal ambi­tion lies in his choice to present a sto­ry from two sides, not nec­es­sar­i­ly the most crazy con­cept, but this gives the read­er the choice as where to begin — with the sto­ry of Jan Wech­sler or Amnon Zichroni.

I start­ed with the Jan Wech­sler half. Wech­sler finds him­self adrift in the haze of mem­o­ry. Events in his life force him to rethink his whole exis­tence and iden­ti­ty when a mys­te­ri­ous suit­case arrives at his home with his name and sig­na­ture on it, but full of objects he can­not rec­og­nize. This suit­case takes on a meta­phys­i­cal mys­tery that attempts to pin down his true self, as slip­pery as that sounds. In doing so, adding anoth­er lay­er to this already dense book, Stein uses this plot to explore the nature of tra­di­tion, of his­to­ry, and of the weight of the past on our present selves. The fact that Stein can jug­gle all these con­cep­tu­al fac­tors while cre­at­ing a sus­tained and com­pelling nar­ra­tive attests to his tal­ent and achieve­ment.

The two parts of the sto­ry fill each oth­er in. In the Amnon Zichroni part we learn that Zichroni was the psy­cho­an­a­lyst of a Holo­caust mem­oirist, Mirsky, who Jan Wech­sler exposed to the world as a fraud. Based loose­ly on the sto­ry of Bin­jamin Wilkomirs­ki, who wrote a fraud­u­lent Holo­caust mem­oir in 1995, Stein takes that sto­ry and adds numer­ous meta­phys­i­cal lay­ers that will appeal to enthu­si­asts of his­to­ry and phi­los­o­phy alike. While the choose-your-own-adven­ture feels some­what like an unnec­es­sary gim­mick, at no point does it over­whelm the com­pelling and intel­li­gent nature of the book.

Joseph Win­kler is a free­lance writer liv­ing in New York City. He writes for Vol1Brooklyn, The Huff­in­g­ton Post, Jew­cy, and oth­er sites. While not writ­ing, Joe is get­ting a Mas­ters in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture at City Col­lege. To sup­port his extrav­a­gant lifestyle, Joe also tutors and unabashed­ly babysits. Check out his blog at nocon​ver​sa​tion​left​be​hind​.blogspot​.com.

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