cover image The Tears and Prayers of Fools

The Tears and Prayers of Fools

Grigory Kanovich, trans. from the Russian by Mary Ann Szporluk. Syracuse Univ, $39.95 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-815611-59-2

Lithuanian author Kanovich (Devilspel), who died in 2023, paints a decidedly unromantic picture of Jewish shtetl life in this strange and affecting 1880s-set novel. At the outset, a man wearing a velvet kippah, who claims to be “a messenger from God,” shows up in a small Lithuanian Jewish town. Though the community is accustomed to visits from itinerant madmen, the newcomer—who does not reveal his name and says he’s “from everywhere”—turns the townspeople’s lives upside down. He accuses the town watchman, Rakhmiel, of having sinned, and vows to make the tavern keeper, Reb Yeshua Mandel, cry. Rakhmiel hopes the stranger might actually be his long-lost son, Aaron, whom he hasn’t seen since he was drafted into the czar’s army years earlier. Each person imbues the newcomer’s presence with a meaning based on their own deeply rooted needs and desires, until an act of violence toward the stranger rends the town apart. Kanovich meticulously renders each of the townspeople, taking care to avoid framing them as quaint caricatures, while the haunting prose (“The creak of cart wheels echoed in the universe like a moan and an omen”) adds a bewitching sheen of unreality. Admirers of I.B. Singer should take a look. (Oct.)