History Thieves
Zinovy Zinik
(Seagull Books)
Zinik reproduces a page from the Talmud, says that it was the layout that struck him. "Each passage of the biblical narrative occupied a smaller space on the page because it was surrounded by numerous commentaries."

History Thieves is a narrative of Zinik's life growing up in Russia, emigrating to Israel, and living in England. Like the Talmud, History Thieves is jam-packed with commentary in the form of footnotes (which sometimes run on for pages) and pictures (Zinik as a child, Zinik in Moscow, Zinik in Jerusalem, and Zinik in London.)

His themes are exile, dreams, being Jewish ... and jelly-fish. What? He quotes from Adelbert von Chamisso and his study of the common Salpa. It is a sea creature that alternates from generation to generation, in one, being "individual, free-swimming;" in the next, "a colonial form in which individuals joining together to form a larger organism." In the 19th century this strange behavior was cited as Darwinian proof that nation-states should join together to create the likes of later tyrannical states: Germany, Italy, the United States.

Zinik seems to be a merry sort --- although his pictures tend to show him as fretful. He felt free as he grew up in Moscow, had little trouble leaving, and apparently moved on easily to England. "None of my close relatives perished in the Holocaust or in the Gulag."

    Apart from an occasional exchange of nastiness in the playground --- common among adolescent boys in every country --- I had never heard an anti-Semitic remark directed at me personally...

The most interesting passages have to do with him arriving in Berlin for the first time in his life, and seeing his dream house. He gives a precise description of that uncanny experience that you or I may have had as well: wandering about in some strange place --- in his case, down the banks of the Spree --- and seeing a building that he had seen dozens of times before in his dreams.

His explanation is a little dry and somewhat Hegelian; he thinks it has to do with photographs in his grandfather's attic. Me? I'd rather blame it all on previous lives and intimations of spectres ... what Pogo used to call "ghostally voices."

Be that as it may, Zinik has written a brief and gently pleasing autobiography which gave me my own mystical start. When I was in hospital years and years ago and when I called for help, I always said "duck." (The word for a urinal was "duck.")

More recently, when I was operated on in Mexico City, I was told that the word I should use was "pato" --- Spanish for "duck." And now, quack, in one of Zinik's long --- and sometimes tortuous --- footnotes, we find that "the urine bottle is called 'utka' in Russian, which means a "duck." He thinks it is because of "the duck-like shape of the bottle." I would much more like to think of it as an intra-spatial (or inner-special) case of duckly metaphysics ... where our featherly friends win out over what we foolishly think of as reality to drive us quackers.

The cover by Sunandini Banerjee, Hallucinations of a non-Existent Existence, is ducky, too ... vaut le voyage.

--- L. W. Milam
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