We all know that this is an age of irony. Heaven forfend (and I use the phrase entirely as an idiom) that anyone who pretends to an ounce of sophistication should ever feel that they didn't get the joke, that they have been naive and gullible or, even worse, sincere.
The juxtaposition of two recent books (with their own Web sites) leads me to believe that maybe it's time to start giving a bit more credit to labours of love rather than simply those of laughter.
I'm thinking of The Darwin Awards: Evolution in Action, by Wendy Northcutt (Dutton, 327 pages, $23.99), a book that plays very amusingly, and finally a bit disturbingly, off human stupidity, and of On Foreign Soil, a newly translated novel by the late Falk Zolf, father of broadcaster Larry Zolf and my own Grade 4 teacher long ago.
The Darwin Awards (http://www.DarwinAwards.com) is as hip as it gets; it shows up regularly on the list of coolest sites. People talk about it at parties. Dedicated by Northcutt (who has a degree in molecular biology) to those who improve the gene pool by removing themselves from it, the awards focus on humanity at its stupidest. And, yes, the behaviour is often sheerly idiotic (although many of the most outrageous examples in the book are unconfirmed, and thus likely to be fictional). But, really, how funny is it that six Egyptian farmers die trying to save a chicken (who survived) from a well; or that a veteran skydiver plummets to her death in Yosemite national Park -- in front of her husband, no less -- when she fails to perform a proper safety check on her equipment? We may, at a gallows-humour level, find all this funny, but these are real human beings. Perhaps we laugh because such an incident is a memento mori, a reminder that it could happen to any one of us, at any time.
Contrast this with Winnipegger Martin Green's painstaking translation of On Foreign Soil, an autobiographical novel orginally published in 1945 as Oyf Fremder Erd and of which this is the first volume, occupying the years 1900 to 1917. (Volume II, which I have not seen, covers the years 1917 to 1927.) The novel has no apparent publisher, no price, no ISBN, although it does have a Web site (http://www.onforeignsoil.com), from which one may order it, and begin investigating its greatest charm, or idiosyncrasy: its use of Yiddish. For Green has decided not merely to translate a novel, but to offer a language course. The novel begins with enough transliterated Yiddish to give the flavour of the original and gradually introduces more and more, until, by the end, it's half-Yiddish. It's a hugely quixotic exercise and, even allowing for my own muted nostalgia for a mostly forgotten language and vanished culture, an entirely admirable enterprise.
So while The Darwin Awards, with its cynicism about humanity, will continue to be lauded, On Foreign Soil, with its wistful hopefulness, will pass virtually unnoticed. But I ask you, which is the more worthwhile?
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