Jewish Book Council: Yirmi Pinkus' "Petty Business" doesn't get lost in translation

Outside of Israel, Prof. Yirmi Pinkus, senior faculty member at the Department of Visual Communication that teaches also at the Department of Fashion Design and the Program of Masters Degree in Design, enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a brilliant comics artist and co-founder (with Rutu Modan) of the Actus Comics Group. Yet in Israel, he has achieved greater fame for his critically acclaimed, award-winning novels. Evan Fallenberg and Yardenne Greenspan have beautifully translated the second of these, the 2012 bestseller Petty Business. It’s a dazzling mosaic of hilarity and heartbreak that boldly goes against the grain of the usual subjects of much of Israeli fiction.

This highly entertaining novel immerses readers in the complicated personal and business relationships among three generations of a pair of lower-middle-class extended families, the Zinmans and the Shlossmans/Saltzmans, both of Polish-Jewish lineage. Pinkus vividly captures the foibles of these bakers, beauticians, clothing stall operators, hairstylists, and grocers during an already forgotten epoch: Tel Aviv of the late 1980s. These were the twilight years of small-business owners, modest grocers, and the wheeler-dealers of the rag trade, before the crushing onslaught of the vast international chain stores and supermarket goliaths that now dominate the Israeli retail landscape. Rarely has an Israeli novelist bestowed such affection and empathic understanding on this nearly invisible sector of society, those terrified of losing their hard-won places in the world.

Even though most of Pinkus’s hardscrabble but openhearted characters recognize that life has shortchanged them, they keep at it relentlessly and with poignant hopefulness. In spite of all their absurdly miscalculated plots and intrigues to make ends meet, a quiet heroism permeates their struggles. As the patriarch of one family sorrowfully observes, “How fragile is the measure of happiness available to the small-time retailer—nine loaves of challah remaining on the shelf at the end of a Friday afternoon are enough to turn a holiday into a day of mourning!” Over all their daily trials and tribulations hovers the pastoral dream of an idyllic vacation in Seefeld, the famous Austrian Alpine village, its lush mountains, waterfalls, and wonderful drink and food so far removed from sweltering and grimy Tel Aviv. But just as their true heart’s desire seems almost within reach, dark storm clouds of a terrible tragedy appear and the true test of these resilient families arrives.

Top image: part of the book cover

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