Sunday, July 28, 2013

Stories to Melt Memories: Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman

Minka Pradelski’s Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman, which I read in Philip Boehm’s colorful translation from the original German (Und da kam Frau Kugelmann), tells lots of tales: the initial, framing, story concerns one Tsippy Silberberg, who comes to Tel Aviv from Germany to pick up her inheritance (a fish service, of all things), but the real story in the novel is told by one Bella Kugelman, who barges into Tsippy’s hotel room, unannounced and uninvited, to talk about her childhood in Będzin, Poland.

File:Bed005o.jpgTsippy’s story is, initially anyway, pretty light—even “lite,” since her obsession with frozen foods sounds rather absurd—but Mrs. Kugelman barges into Tsippy’s imagination, too, by talking on and on, first about her school days, which include crushes, skipping class, friends, neighbors, and various adventures that feel pretty universal. Tsippy’s parents, whom she calls “fearful, postwar parents,” would never let her get away with so much; she has little sense of family history other than that her father is from Katowice, near Będzin. Meanwhile, Mrs. Kugelman sometimes looks decades younger or pulls at phantom braids when she tells her stories.

Of course we—and “we” includes Tsippy—know what will happen in Poland, and Tsippy begins pushing to hear more details because she thinks Mrs. Kugelman is making her hometown sound too perfect, too idyllic. I had the same feeling and was glad that Mrs. Kugelman obliged by telling more stories, including stories of miracles, stories of who survived and how… leading to discoveries for Tsippy, who grew up in a family that appeared nearly memory-less. Though the novel feels overly schematic to me, largely because Tsippy and Mrs. Kugelman were a little too obvious as opposites or counterbalances, I still can’t help but appreciate Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman as a book about finding ways to talk about frozen memories of the everyday and the horrors, the Holocaust, that erased the everyday. Thanks to its structure and mix of characters and stories, I think Mrs. Kugelman would be particularly good for young adult readers or others who haven’t read a lot of fiction about the Holocaust.

P.S. A brief interview with Pradelski on her publisher’s Web site addresses how Mrs. Kugelman came about:

What inspired you to write your first book?

I interviewed a survivor for the Steven Spielberg Shoah Foundation. The survivor asked me not to forget his hometown in Poland: Bendzin.

Disclaimers: I received a copy of Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman from the publisher, Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company. Thank you!

Up Next: Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight, which I liked very much.

Image: Old postcard of Będzin, including the synagogue, via Wikipedia, public domain

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