A Novel About Esperanto

A while ago I was reading about the Ido-schism when I noticed several Wikipedia pages referenced a book named A Curable Romantic by Joseph Skibell, in which the schism was portrayed. As it’s rare to see reference to Esperanto in English, let alone a book about it, I bought the book straight away. It’s not the only English language novel that has Esperanto in it, for example in the Yiddish Policeman’s Union, the main character lives in Hotel Zamenhof which includes a few Esperanto signs like lifto (lift) and one character exclaims “What’s Esperanto for a pile of shit?” (I would suggest fekaĵaro). However, unlike others in books, Esperanto isn’t just mentioned in a throwaway line, it forms a core part of the story.

The book is essentially about three Jewish men and three cities at the turn of the century. Sigmund Freud, L.L. Zamenhof and Kalonymos Kalmish Szapira, in Vienna, Paris and London from 1894-1940. Following this structure the book is divided into three parts, with the middle one heavily focusing on Esperanto. The main character becomes a passionate Esperantist and there are many conversations in and about Esperanto. So is the book any good?

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To be honest, the book gets off to a bad start. The narrator and main character, Jakob Sammelsohn is completely empty. He has no hobbies, interests, friends or personality, he says little and does nothing. He’s a poor, lonely Jewish doctor who mainly exists for us to observe other people. Throughout the book I found it very difficult to care about anything he did, partly because he did so little. The title is strange because he’s clearly an incurable romantic who lusts after every woman he meets. Perhaps the author deliberately choose to create a passive narrator to mimic the style of 19th century books, but there’s a good reason was that style has gone out of fashion, it’s incredibly boring.

The narrator becomes lovesick with a woman he doesn’t know, who turns out to be a patient of Freud. Pages pass during which he says, does and understands little. We are introduced to his father, a man so religious that he only spoke in Ancient Hebrew quotes from the bible. This leads to a hilarious scene where he gives his son a sex talk solely using Bible quotes. There is a description of the Jewish town where he grew up and the culture of the time. I should point out that this is a very Jewish novel. All the main characters are Jews, there are numerous religious references, Yiddish quotes and a major theme is the place of Jews in early 20th century society. However, as I am not Jewish and know little about Jewish culture at that time, I didn’t understand many references.

However, the story eventually starts to pick up. It turns out that the woman Jakob is in love with is actually possessed by the ghost or dybbuk, of his ex-wife. As a child, his father had forced him to marry Ita, a mentally challenged girl, but he ran away and now she is haunting him. In her previous life she was unable to speak and could only incoherently repeat what others said to her, but now she has returned with passion. As a ghost, Ita is feisty, defiant and the first interesting person in the book (Freud might be famous but he comes off as a toff). She can actually tell a story.

This is the premise of the novel. Her soul and Jabok’s have been in love for millennia but are always separated in their various lives and can never consummate the love. The premise is now that she will follow him along his travels, constantly being reborn and meeting him at various points. There is some sappy nonsense about where the purity of his love saves her, but otherwise it’s a good set-up.

The writing is very pompous and grandiose which could be a deliberate mocking of the narrator’s self-delusions or perhaps the author was trying too hard. There are numerous tangents and irrelevant side details that play no role in the story. The book is 600 pages long but could easily be cut in half. There are occasional funny moments and sometimes the author describes a scene in a witty way. The narrator is a fool, but it is occasionally funny to laugh at his foolishness and hope that he will cop on. Unfortunately these gems are buried under a pile of nonsense, where a stream of nothing passes by and even the narrator seems bored.

Then he meets Zamenhof, who is described in a kindly grandfatherly way. Perhaps too idealistic and naïve, yet still inspiring. At first the narrator wishes to laugh in his face at the ridiculousness of it, but gradually warms to the idea, helped as many of us are, by the presence of a gorgeous Esperantistino. There is no mere token mention of Esperanto, there are many full sentences and even conversations in Esperanto. The Esperanto is not a Google translate job and the author didn’t just pull words out of a dictionary, it’s of good quality with only the occasional mistake. The author did proper research and Zamenhof accurately explains the history of the language. Most surprising of all is that there are numerous Esperanto phrases left untranslated.

“Sidu ĉe la tablo, Doktoro, kaj me alportas du varmajn ĉokoladojn.”

The first Universala Kongreso en Boulogne-sur-Mer is covered including many of the leading Esperantists at the time. Their eccentrics are well described, though in Beaufront’s case they are probably deserved. There is an absurd element to a Jewish eye doctor hoping to change the world with a blind man, a pretend marquis and a French philosopher. There is an attempt to capture the etoso, the atmosphere of people discussing Esperanto for the very first time and realising that it works. There is a very strange scene where they visit Zamenhof who acts mad, seeing creatures and hearing voices that aren’t there. This is a story where angels and ghosts exist, but it was still weird and pretty insulting.

The main theme running through the novel is the place of Jews in modern society, in relation to God, the clash between the new and the old, between progress and tradition. The narrator is trying to escape his childhood in a simple Jewish village by fleeing to a modern city. A contrast is made between Esperanto and Yiddish, between “the language of a new and braver world, but in the old and fearful one of our childhoods”. The rationalist French want to remove any mysticism from Zamenhof’s speech and mentions of his Jewishness. Almost his entire speech is quoted. It is so amazing that the narrator’s girlfriend falls back in love with him. The marriage proposal occurs in untranslated Esperanto.

“mia kara, mia dolĉa knabino . . .”

“Karulino, edziniĝu al mi.” “Kio?” “Estu mia edzino. Mi petas!”

“Jes,” “Vere?” “Jes, mi diris, jes, mi volas, jes!”

There is even untranslated dirty talk in Esperanto. It’s awkwardly expressed, but it’s the thought that counts.

“Via buŝo je la ektuŝo donacas tute jam sian molecon de veluro!”

“Ho! Mia amanto, mi ludos viran rolon kun plezuro, rajdonte vin kun arta kokso-lulo!”

“Dum inter viajn du fermurojn, mia kara, premiĝos mia kapo kaj mia lango vibros kun fervoro!”

Sed, sufiĉe, leganto, mi estas maldiskreta kaj ĉi tiuj aĵoj estas neniom da via afero, vere!

Jabok becomes a member of the delegation for an international language as a representative for Esperanto. The delegates are portrayed as odd and eccentric and rather pompous. The committee is shambolic with rules being ignored and no procedure followed, just squabbling. Jabok is lured outside by a small boy (the reincarnation of Ita), who is then beaten to death before his eyes, causing him to miss the final vote and is unable to oppose the adoption of Ido. Due to the nature of the novel, the split symbolises the clash between tradition and progress, Esperanto is only good enough for a simple Eastern Jew like Jakob and Zamenhof, the modern French want something better. Beaufront is revealed as a fraud, which is historically accurate and one section where there was no need for exaggeration. The author incorrectly claims that the schism destroyed the language, which is untrue, most Esperantists remained loyal to the language and Ido quickly fizzled out. It is later revealed that angels were sent to destroy Esperanto to prevent the return of the Messiah.

Then comes the third section of the novel, the shortest and worst. To be honest, by this point the story loses all purpose and doesn’t seem to know where to go. The plot jumps 30 years into the future during which nothing happened, because that’s how boring and empty the main character is. After the war, Jakob decides to visit the Zamenhof’s and marry one of his daughters. He instantly realises this is a ridiculous idea, falls in love with the daughter-in-law, but stays with the family for the next 20 years anyway. When Germany invades Poland, the family are arrested and the plot instantly forgets about them.

Instead he meets a random rabbi (or rebbe, I had to google the difference) Kalonymos Kalmish Szapira, and ends up helping him write a book for no particular reason. Jakob isn’t religious and doesn’t particularly like the rebbe so it doesn’t make sense why he’s helping him. To be honest the story runs out of steam and just plods along aimlessly. Even the author seems to have given up by now. I’d never heard of the rebbe but apparently he (and his book) is famous so that’s why he’s shoehorned into the book.

So Jabok is surrounded by two angels who follow him throughout the Warsaw Ghetto . . . yet it somehow seems boring. The author manages the difficult task of making Nazi occupation seem dull and uninteresting. After a while I just stopped caring. The narrator is so empty, his life is so empty that it didn’t seem to matter whether he lived. An enormous amount of the book is spent in Vienna with Freud and every minor detail there, yet there is little space spent in Warsaw. It feels like the author ran out of space or interest, so he rushed the novel to an end. The angels take him to visit Heaven (for no particular reason), and even that was anti-climatic. They come close to God and are told he is weeping. That’s it, that’s all, so they go home having learned nothing.

Eventually Ita reappears as a nurse, but it’s pointless. She doesn’t remember him and does nothing. The whole build up was for nothing. This was the most frustrating part, I felt cheated that I was lured into a premise of reborn souls following each other through time, only to find that the author abandoned the premise halfway through the novel.

The ending is awful. Too awful for me to even to describe here, but let’s just say it felt like I had been slapped in the face by the author (and I felt like returning the favour). It was one of the worst endings to a novel I’ve seen in a long time and made most of which came before it seem pointless.

So would I recommend the novel? Not particularly. It’s far too long and filled with an enormous amount of boring sections. I did enjoy the Esperanto section (which is about 40% of the novel) but I don’t think it’s enough to compensate for the dull first section and the train wreck of the third. Esperantists might find it interesting if they don’t have too high expectations. Borrow it for the novelty of seeing our language as part of a plot and don’t read the ending.

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