Cel­e­brate Jew­ish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invit­ed an author to share thoughts on #Jew­Lit for each day of Jew­ish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

This week, we are fea­tur­ing the final­ists and win­ner of the Natan Book Award at Jew­ish Book Coun­cil

Today, Mat­ti Fried­man, win­ner of the 2018 Natan Book Award at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil for his forth­com­ing book Spies of No Coun­try (Fall, 2018) and the author of The Alep­po Codex and Pump­kin­flow­ers, writes about a new­ly trans­lat­ed book that you should be reading. 

I thought I’d ded­i­cate these few words to a (dead) Jew­ish writer and a (very much alive) trans­la­tor, and a new co-pro­duc­tion of theirs that’s worth attention.

The great French nov­el­ist Romain Gary was once well-known in Amer­i­ca, but has been large­ly for­got­ten since his sui­cide in Paris in 1980. Gary, who flew with the Free French air force in WWII and went on to write a series of cel­e­brat­ed books that made him a major lit­er­ary fig­ure at home and abroad, was a fas­ci­nat­ing and slip­pery char­ac­ter. He wrote a famous work (The Life Before Us) in the voice of an Arab orphan and under a pseu­do­nym, Emile Ajar, deny­ing that he was the writer and employ­ing some­one else to pre­tend to be Ajar. He worked with an Amer­i­can trans­la­tor, John Markham Beech, who didn’t exist, and was none oth­er than Gary him­self. And though a patri­ot and cul­tur­al cham­pi­on of France, Gary was born a Lithuan­ian Jew named Roman Kacew.

Due in part to legal and fam­i­ly com­pli­ca­tions — a spe­cial­ty of Gary’s — his last and per­haps best book, The Kites, was nev­er trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish. It did appear in Israel in a Hebrew trans­la­tion, how­ev­er, and became wild­ly pop­u­lar; this is the ver­sion that I read. It is a know­ing, sad, and sweet book about a French peas­ant boy’s love for a girl, and for France, dur­ing the years when Nor­mandy was occu­pied by the Nazis.

The writer and trans­la­tor Miran­da Rich­mond Mouil­lot (A Fifty-Year Silence), who has spent many years in a vil­lage in rur­al France, hap­pened upon Gary’s book, was smit­ten, and set out to solve the legal puz­zle that would allow a trans­la­tion to pro­ceed. (The sto­ry, which Mouil­lot told me when I met her in Paris in 2014, could be a book in itself.) The result, just pub­lished in Octo­ber by New Direc­tions, is won­der­ful. Mouillot’s work per­fect­ly cap­tures Gary’s mix of roman­tic mem­o­ry and sharp but sym­pa­thet­ic obser­va­tions of human nature.

Gary didn’t play up his Jew­ish sen­si­bil­i­ties. But they’re present here for any­one look­ing — in the char­ac­ter of an earthy and resource­ful Parisian madame, for exam­ple, and in the book’s strange and abrupt end­ing with an expres­sion of admi­ra­tion for the real-life pas­tor André Trocmé, who saved Jew­ish chil­dren in the war in the vil­lage of Le Cham­bon-sur-Lignon. Whether you’ve been wait­ing 37 years for this trans­la­tion to final­ly appear, or whether you’re hear­ing Gary’s name for the first time, The Kites should be high on your read­ing list.