Yiddish expressionism enjoyed a vociferous if brief existence after World War I. Similar to the movement in other continental cultures, it was also a European analogue to the American immigrant experience as reflected in Yiddish literature: an ever-increasing perception of equality and comradeship in suffering. “The Street,” by Israel Rabon, first published in Yiddish in 1928, and now colorfully rendered by translator Leonard Wolf, relentlessly probes the nihilism and despair of Poland between the wars.
The heart of this novel, set in the industrial city of Lodz, is dislocation, the blight of postwar society. Rabon’s is a world turned upside down, where orderly human enterprise can be found only in the traveling circus, reality is most believable at the movies, and the freezing, inhospitable cityscape ultimately provides the sole refuge its inhabitants can know.
As its title hints, “The Street” considers modern homelessness, actual and internal. Its characters are frightening products of ruthless mercenary goals and the disregard for human dignity--beggars, charlatans, callous bosses, desperate women. Even time is out of kilter, lurching with disturbing inconsistency, as if to signal the end of logically recordable history.
The significantly anonymous narrator, a recently discharged soldier, wanders the city, cold, usually hungry, in search of work and compassion. Both are scarce; in this worried milieu, one drifting Jew is trivial. Denied a respectable, stable life, he merges with the chaos of the street. One evening, as he listens to the city shutting down, he realizes his wretched fate: “It seemed to me that I was being locked up in a lonely, foreign street in which I would never find a warm place to spend the night.”
Rabon’s protagonist is somehow unappealing as well as unhappy. Yet if he fails to arouse sympathy, it is not because his famished visions are paler than those revealed by the hero of Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger,” nor because his surroundings are cheerier than the ones haunted by Franz Biberkopf in Alfred Doeblin’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” nor even because his loneliness is less cosmic than that of today’s emotionally deprived fictional heroes. Rather, it has to do with Rabon’s inability to create a character whose psychodynamic structure rings true.
The narrator is peculiarly lacking in resonance, unmotivated by explicit purpose or deeper, unconscious wishes. For today’s reader attempting to fathom World War II, however, Rabon’s vision of resignation seems anachronistically mild and therefore ironic. The novel ends with the weary narrator toiling in the gravelike coal mines of Katowice. Its author was killed by the Nazis.