Book Review : Hoffman: Survivor Haunted by History

Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language by Eva Hoffman (Dutton: $18.95, 280 pages)

I can bestow no greater praise on “Lost in Translation"-- and I can render no more accurate description of the book-- than to say that its author, Eva Hoffman, reminds me of a character who has stepped out of the pages of a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer and now speaks to us in her own voice.

What’s more, Hoffman’s voice is rich and melodic; her recollections are intimate, vivid, poignant; she strikes us as a marvelously passionate woman, fully alive and yet somehow other-worldly, a survivor who is haunted by history and, above all, by language. And, like Singer himself, Eva Hoffman is a masterful storyteller with a compelling story to tell.

Hoffman was born in Poland in the wake of the Holocaust, emigrated with her family to Canada in 1959, and now lives and works in the literary precincts of Manhattan. Her memories of childhood in Cracow in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s are indelible and, for the author and the reader alike, irresistible. The Hula Hoop craze and the death of Stalin, the joy of sampling butter and cream cheese in the marketplace and exploring the secret recesses of the library, thrilling sexual flirtations and chance encounters with primeval Jew-hatred, the first confrontations with the deep mysteries of sex and religion-- each experience has imprinted itself on Hoffman’s memories of childhood, and Hoffman traces the intricate shape of each memory with the sure hand of a truly gifted writer.


Holocaust Casts Its Shadow

“It’s by adherence to the contours of a few childhood objects,” Hoffman observes, “that the substance of our selves--the molten force we’re made of--molds and shapes itself.”

Thus, for example, the Holocaust casts its shadow over Eva Hoffman, as it does over all children of survivors, and the memories are like the persistent ache from a hard tumor that has implanted itself in one’s consciousness and will not go away: “I keep every detail of what my mother tells me in my memory like black beads,” Hoffman comments. “I come from the war; it is my true origin.”

Once the family arrives in Vancouver, Hoffman is devastated by the sudden realization that she has been cut off from her cherished childhood certainties: “I know what it is to lose one’s moorings,” she recalls of a momentous nightmare that she characterizes as “the primal scream of my birth into the New World.” Vancouver, she says, is where “I fell out of the net of meaning into the weightlessness of chaos.” The cutting edge of her alienation--and, as it turns out, the instrument of her redemption--is language itself:


The Essence of Riverhood

“The words I learn now don’t stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. ‘River’ in Polish was a vital sound, energized with the essence of riverhood. . . . ‘River’ in English is cold--a word without an aura,” she explains. “This radical disjoining between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance but of its colors, striations, nuances-- its very existence. It is the loss of a living connection.”

What redeems Hoffman is the author’s triumphant struggle to master the English language, and to thereby define herself in the vernacular of her new homeland. Her efforts start in the back seat of a car full of teen-agers, where she tries to join in the adolescent hilarity by translating a joke from the old country. No one laughs. “I love language too much to maul its beats,” she writes of the painful adolescence silence that resulted from her humiliation. “Laughter is the lightning rod of play, the eroticism of conversation; for now, I’ve lost the ability to make the sparks fly.”

As a young woman, Hoffman studies at Rice and Harvard, where her superbly perceptive mind and her natural ear for language amount to a kind of manifest destiny--she will not only learn the language, she will master it. (“Lost in Translation,” of course, is the best evidence of her success--she writes with ease and elegance.) In fact, Hoffman gives us the very moment of revelation--she is reading T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in preparation for a class that she teaches at the University of New Hampshire.


‘Accustomed Dry Silence’

“My eyes move over these lines in its accustomed dry silence, and then--as if an aural door had opened of its own accord--I hear their modulations and their quiet undertones,” she writes. “I’m back within the music of the language, and Eliot’s words descend on me with a sort of grace. Words become, as they were in childhood, beautiful things--except this is better, because they’re now crosshatched with a complexity of meaning, with the sonorities of felt, sensuous thought.”

“Genuine literature,” according to Isaac Bashevis Singer, “manages to be both clear and profound. It has the magical power of merging causality with purpose, doubt with faith, the passions of the flesh with the yearnings of the soul. It is unique and general, national and universal, realistic and mystic.” By even these lofty standards, Eva Hoffman’s work in “Lost in Translation” deserves to be called genuine literature.