Sunday, November 3, 2013

Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman by Minka Pradelski

Young Tsippy Silberberg is more than a little surprised when her aunt in Tel Aviv passes away and leaves her an inheritance.  When she arrives to claim it, she's even more puzzled that it consists of an incomplete fish service in a suitcase.  As she sits in her beach-side hotel room trying to puzzle out the meaning of having silverware to serve something she refuses to even eat, her journey gets even stranger with a knock on the door.  Behind that knock is Mrs. Bella Kugelman, a Holocaust survivor like Tsippy's parents, who is determined to keep her hometown in Poland alive through stories that she insists on telling to Tsippy and anyone else who will listen.  Much to her surprise, it's this odd and persistent woman and her stories that will help Tsippy unearth the meaning behind her aunt's bizarre bequest.

To get to the heart of things, Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman is kind of a weird book.  Tsippy is a bizarre narrator prone to flights of fancy and impulsiveness that hardly make sense.  Her bizarre diet centers on frozen vegetables for reasons that aren't entirely clear.  The whole premise of an aged survivor materializing in her hotel room every day to tell stories of the old country regardless of whether Tsippy wants to hear them or not requires a healthy dose of suspension of disbelief.  It's easy to see why Mrs. Kugelman is probably not a book that everyone is going to like.  That said, I liked it quite a lot indeed.

Despite her oddities, Tsippy is an interesting character who has grown up in the shadow of her parents' silence over the terrible events of the Holocaust they survived.  Her bizarre eating habits seemed to be grounded in a desperate need to get her emotionally repressed parents to say anything even if it was just to scold her for her increasingly bizarre behavior.  I came to terms with odd Tsippy Silberberg as the story's primary narrator, but what I really loved were the stories Mrs. Kugelman came to tell Tsippy.  Determined to keep her Polish town of Bedzin and its denizens alive long after the Holocaust destroyed it, Mrs. Kugelman is happy to tell anyone who will listen the stories of her childhood and the many characters that populated it.  Her stories both satisfy Tsippy's hunger for some sense of her past and draw readers into the lives of mischievous kids, extremely religious adults, lovers, scam artists, businessmen, bakers and grocers and porters who populate an above-average small town that stood on the precipice of its own destruction and never knew.

Mrs. Kugelman's stories call to mind the sort of small-time legends that populate any town or even any one family, and Pradelski's choice to focus on the life of the town in its glory days before the horrors of the Holocaust came calling is a refreshing departure.  Minka Pradelski is a sociologist who has spent considerable time exploring the psychological effects of the Holocaust on survivors, and her depiction of the very willful disconnect Tsippy's guilt-ridden father has made between the painful past and the promising future he hopes for his daughter definitely seems to spring from that knowledge.  However, as Tsippy and Mrs. Kugelman's tale shows us, it might just be that the very stories survivors avoid are the ones that stand to heal a new generation.  Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman is unexpectedly touching novel that shows the value of knowing our past even as we plunge into the uncertain future, and one that I would highly recommend if you don't mind reading a book that's just a bit outside the box.

(Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy in exchange for my honest review).

1 comment:

  1. Sounds interesting, but maybe a little TOO "outside of the box" for me!