This Fabulous, Little-Known Place: On Judita Šalgo’s “The Road to Birobidzhan”
By Sibelan ForresterAugust 29, 2022
The Road to Birobidzhan by Judita Šalgo
But that plot fizzled when Stalin died, leaving the autonomous territory in an odd state. Some Jews had moved there from Soviet and other regions, as celebrated in the 1936 film A Greater Promise (in Russian, Искатели счастья, or Seekers of Happiness, directed by Vladimir Korsh and Iosif Shapiro), but later the territory languished: Jews in the USSR and then the Russian Federation were choosing to go elsewhere. Post-Soviet studies of the region include Robert Weinberg’s 1998 book Stalin’s Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland; An Illustrated History, 1928–1996 and Aleksandr Gutman’s 2006 film In Search of Happiness. Now, a new translation of Judita Šalgo’s novel The Road to Birobidzhan weaves the territory’s wavering ontological status into something mysterious and evocative.
Šalgo was born in 1941 in Novi Sad, the main city of Vojvodina, now the northernmost region of Serbia but for centuries part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The region’s cosmopolitan population included significant Jewish communities. Many of Šalgo’s relatives were murdered during World War II, as were the relatives of the novel’s occasional first-person narrator, a man of about her age. When the work touches on the postwar years, the big questions involve remembering: memorializing lost family members, struggling to maintain connections with relatives who have emigrated (every Jew is spoken of as part of one’s own people, a “compatriot” in John K. Cox’s translation), and fantasizing that Jewish children were taken in and protected, perhaps still to be found alive, though also perhaps baptized and appropriated by gentiles. What stories can be trusted and believed? The sections set in earlier parts of the 20th century concentrate on women’s issues, the sexual exploitation of young (especially Jewish) girls and women, creativity, revolution, and hysteria. The narrative structure is only somewhat chronological.
Šalgo was important in the local development of feminist writing, activism, and scholarship; as the book’s cover notes, in the last years of her life, she played an active role in post-Yugoslav antiwar movements. Her own background was ethnically complex, and despite her markedly Jewish first name (“Judita” is equivalent to “Judith”), she identified as Yugoslav, like her better-known almost-contemporary Danilo Kiš.
The Road to Birobidzhan, like many of Kiš’s works (e.g., 1965’s Garden, Ashes; 1972’s Hourglass; and 1976’s A Tomb for Boris Davidovich), focuses on Jewish characters and their conversations. The text notes which languages are being used (French, German, Hungarian, Serbian, Yiddish), which person is translating for another, and along which linguistic vector. A long dinner conversation in Belgrade brings up the strangeness of encounters between Ashkenazi Jews, who came to Serbia from the north, and Sephardim, who already resided in the Ottoman Empire. Scenes set before the First World War refer to the language and ideas of psychotherapy and of thinkers such as Otto Weininger. As the characters become more familiar to readers, we may note their changes over time. Birobidzhan is mentioned briefly, citing a number of sources of information, but that is as close to a visit as we get. The text then moves to the genealogy of the Rothschilds, asserting the connection of that famous and fabulously wealthy family with the Rot family of Novi Sad (easier to see with the phonetic spelling: Rotšild and Rot), who themselves later move to other lands, east and west. Today, with a new generation of far-right bigots pushing anti-Semitic theories, this novel may have more than ever to offer American readers, including sections set in the United States during the trial and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, our characters’ compatriots.
Šalgo died before completing the novel, which came out in Serbia a year after her death from cancer in 1996, so it is impossible to say whether the occasional perplexing moment, odd transition, or abrupt appearance of new characters is intentional. At least one major plot development is asserted and then withdrawn. More importantly, the reader moves through swaths of luscious and resonant prose, often in calm, slightly old-fashioned style. Here, for example, is an unhurried consideration of the kind of ink Baron Edmond de Rothschild might have chosen:
One very old gentleman, with the face of a mummy, expressed his doubts in [sic] the manner of the origin of the cobalt blue spot on the atlas, maintaining that Baron de Rothschild, despite his modern world view, did not use blue ink, then a technological novelty on the basis of aniline dye, but rather black, prepared especially for him from a mixture of ferrous compounds and coal, of which the ancient Semites availed themselves, or even, less frequently, a wondrous fluid of charred fir resin, wine yeast, and gum Arabic, made from an Egyptian recipe. With such ink Moses must have written in his youth, said the friend of the house of Rothschild, and maybe he even used it to write out the concept of the Law that in the decisive hour, in the name of the Lord, he would carve into clay tablets.
Translator Cox provides resonant English prose with a poetic sensibility befitting the original (before her death, Šalgo was better known as a poet). The tone harmonizes with the novel’s uncertainties, be they intentional or the result of the text’s interrupted composition. As the contents get weirder, the prose remains beautiful. Here we see Bertha Pappenheim (the original, as the narrator reminds us, of Freud’s “Anna O.”) during her travels south and east through Europe:
She now felt a vague need to write a letter that would be distinct from all of the others up to this point, the informative, clear, pithy ones that were exhaustive on important matters. She needed to write a letter — not a poem, not a narrative — but a letter, somehow different, female, written so to speak with red lipstick and the black eye-liner, with foundation: a letter that would write itself, which would, like scent and powder, fly forth and liberate itself from the little bottle, from her hands, her lips, from her lungs, from her head, which will swarm from all of these sources and hiding places and spill onto the table in front of the mirror, a letter she could not stop and control, that will contain unpredictable words, voices, through which will burst in self-emancipation words [that] had been hidden or suppressed in her, until now. Events will come to light, events of which she had not been aware, which she had forgotten, or which had not finished happening or had been prevented, held up before they found expression. A text, a letter, that will erupt uncontrollably, like a cry, a shout, a fit of hysteria.
In places, as Cox notes, the prose approaches écriture féminine, whose French and other exemplars Šalgo certainly knew:
The body of a woman is an island. The uterus is the one fixed point, the base; everything else flows, is in motion. Her heart throbs to the left and to the right like the pendulum on a wall clock. Her lungs flap, almost imperceptibly, like the wings of a heron above a pond. The blood streams in her veins like ocean currents around a continent. Let the woman lie or run — that flight of the lungs over the ocean speeds up or slows down, but the situation is always precisely the same. Even when in a panic it ascends too high or collapses right down to the surface of the sea, the uterus stands, so to speak, untouched by the storms of the everyday in its mantle, shrouded in moonlight, like some internal island that has a different, parallel flow of time, another climate, its own destiny.
The book should appeal to a wide range of readers, not only those interested in Šalgo’s career, or Serbian (or, more broadly, Eastern European) fiction, or women’s writing. As its title implies, The Road to Birobidzhan promises a journey to this fabulous, little-known place, yet the territory in the novel remains fabulous and little known: beyond a few facts recited from reference sources, Birobidzhan itself merely flickers through the work, disappearing for whole chapters. In its final appearance, it is reduced to the deprecatory abbreviation “Bidzha,” spoken by a skeptical Yugoslav factory worker. The word put (пут) in the novel’s Serbian title can mean “road,” but also “path” or “way.” The word is a cognate of the Latin pontis, French pont, meaning “bridge.” (This is worth noting, since so many of the novel’s references to travel involve sailing.) Bertha Pappenheim moved amid rumors of a female messiah who will lead women — especially prostitutes and those who have been sexually trafficked and abused, sold into “white slavery” by their own families or the compatriots we would have expected to treat them more justly — to a new promised land that shares some features with Birobidzhan (or Israel), though it is also sometimes located in the South Pacific or generally in Asia.
The novel includes a rich selection of more or less familiar characters: Bertha, best known by her cover as “Anna O.”; the Soviet revolutionary and writer Larisa Reisner; Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, with all the hysteria surrounding their case; and, briefly, Isaac Babel, a compatriot though he was a Soviet writer (murdered by the secret police in 1940). We meet the poet Alfred Rozencvajg, who published under the Serbian/Slavic nom de plume Nenad Mitrov (Nenad is a common man’s name that means “unexpected”). Alongside the shifts between Rozencvajg and Mitrov, depending on whom the character is speaking to, the Serbian spelling keeps reminding anglophone readers that this is a person from another place — unlike the Rot family members in the sections set in the United States. As a historical figure, Rozencvajg/Mitrov (1896–1941) left behind writings that have let Šalgo bring his full, not-very-happy emotional and creative life into her novel. Readers may pause to consider what it means that Mitrov published his work under a pseudonym while Judita Šalgo did not change her name when publishing prose, poetry, and scholarly writings. (She was born Judita Manhajm but took the surname of her stepfather, Šalgo, when her mother remarried after the war.)
Some theorists of translation argue that a good one should read as if it were originally written in the new language. This can be an imperialistic theory, overwriting cultural specificity with the literary moves we are accustomed to. (Moreover, how many important literary works or movements depended on or took energy from foreign texts that were misunderstood or mistranslated?) Although the spelling of names in this translation can be irritatingly inconsistent (Berta or Bertha? Misa or Miša?), keeping Serbian phonetic spelling, especially of Jewish names like Rozencvajg, is both defamiliarizing for the reader used to a different spelling and deeply expressive, a reminder that compatriots in different linguistic settings will develop and be labeled in different ways.
Cox’s afterword — on “The Belgrade Connection” — notes: “The Road to Birobidzhan is a feminist novel, but it is also a medical novel, a Jewish novel, and a political novel. It is a profound statement about alterity in history and the fragility of memory.” The quality of the translation points to the translator’s success in understanding the novel’s significance, and the afterword’s style picks up right where the novel leaves off. Cox is a professor of history at the North Dakota State University in Fargo, specializing in modern European history, but he wears his erudition lightly. He has access to all the languages (except maybe Yiddish?) that are deployed in the novel. His translating projects have been helping to advance anglophone awareness of Serbian and Yugoslav literature, especially in works by stylistically interesting authors who are not yet adequately translated. In addition to this novel from Šalgo, he has translated several works by Kiš (1935–89) and some very interesting prose by Biljana Jovanović (1953–96). All these writers died too soon: Kiš of cancer, like Šalgo, and Jovanović of a brain tumor. For a reader who wishes to explore further, The Road to Birobidzhan ends with a bibliography of literary works by Šalgo, a list of existing translations into English, and a selection of scholarly or critical publications on her in Serbian.
There are just enough typographical errors in the English text to suggest that these were not an intentional strategy by Šalgo or the result of her death interrupting work on the text. Changing the spelling of names might indeed raise the level of confusion for the reader, and it is a shame that the proofreading was not as excellent as the translation.
The novel’s narrative never reaches Birobidzhan, never even gets a look at it. The territory remains a hauntingly named aspiration rather than a real place in the world. The other places named or imagined — the United States, Israel — thus remain iffier than they were, and characters suffer doubt and loss of faith even as they repeat rumors about the discovery of Jewish children who were stolen and baptized during the war, or persist in pursuing their own troubling projects, or reclaim the idea of hysteria. What the title has promised, though, is a road or path or way, and the journey is fascinating as well as aesthetically and intellectually rewarding.
Sibelan Forrester has published translations of prose and poetry from Russian, Serbian, and Croatian. She is professor of Russian language and literature at Swarthmore College.
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