Songs for the Butcher's Daughter
by Peter Manseau
Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter is a novel about language, faith, love — and the cruel and complicated acts performed in their name. The novel is narrated by a 21-year-old “Catholic boy from Boston” living in the modern day, who has lost his faith and is working in a Jewish book depository. In a neat framing device, he claims to be the literary collaborator and “translator” for the second hero, Itsik Malpesh, the “greatest Yiddish poet in America … [for] to be the greatest, one needs only to be the last.”
It’s Malpesh’s story that dominates the book, which takes us on a fascinating, emotionally charged journey through pre-World War II Jewish history. In chapters each titled with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet, Malpesh survives a pogrom on the night he is born in the city of Kishinev, is exiled to Odessa, a city “sitting at the bottom of Europe and Russia like a grease trap on a drain”, and travels to New York as a stowaway. His fascination with stories, language and words shape his passage through life. A fellow student introduces him to Dostoyevsky, indirectly triggering the events that lead to his departure from Kishinev; in Odessa he watches daily battle between Hebraist and Yiddishists in the bar where he sweeps the floor; he begins his journey to America drunk on ink and encased in a box of printing blocks. Finally, his desire to liberate a Yiddish library leads him to his “translator”, changing both their lives. Malpesh’s second driving motivation is his love for the mysterious “butcher’s daughter” that inspires his poetry. She, he believes, saved his life on the night he was born.
Peter Manseau has written a deeply satisfying first novel. An academic, he has a scholar’s eye for intellectual detail, along with a writer’s gusto for original and unexpected situations and characters – which make serious scenes funny, and humorous scenes interesting. I had no idea, for example, that Hebrew is has as much in common with Yiddish “as Latin [with] modern-day English”, nor that the choice of which should be the national language was the source of conflict in the newly established state of Israel. My only reservation is with the violent event at the centre of the book’s denouement – while ingeniously gory, its consequences and reasoning are somehow quietened. In such a morally weighty novel, this seemed a contradiction.
Overall though, I found the author’s enthusiasm infectious, informative and eventually profoundly moving. Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter is an absorbing tale, filled with comedy, tragedy and discovery.