Featured Translation: Alexandrian Summer by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren

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There were over 450 new translations published this year, and trust us, we know from experience, keeping track of them all can be a maddening exercise. Each weekday from now until the end of the year we’ll highlight a different title that you may have missed. From short story collections to epic novels, from award winning works of the highest literary caliber to trashy romantic beach reads, we’ll feature the very best, and the very worst that 2015 had to offer, one book at a time.

Alexandrian Summer by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren / Translated from the Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan

May was a really good month for translated literature. There was Jon Gnarr’s autobiographical novel The Indian. There was Liliana Heker’s collection Please Talk to Me. And of course there was Yitzhak Gormezano Goren’s frank, stunning novel Alexandrian Summer. If you’ve got an out of control to-read pile in your house that looks like a paper Jenga tower and any of these titles are stuck somewhere in the bottom third, I recommend that you swiftly and skillfully pull each of them out and then gently place them all somewhere near the tippy top of the stack. If you don’t possess such a thing in your home, first, what the hell is wrong with you? Second, go get these books! I’m pained that we haven’t found the time to properly review any of these three. It’s a discomfort within me that only grows worse when I get to tomorrow’s book, but until then…

Alexandria. Summer. 1951. A tale of two Jewish families. Ten-year-old Robert’s life changes dramatically when his parents decide to sublet rooms to the vacationing Hamdi-Alis family. Eleven-year-old Victor will introduce the boy to the forbidden pleasures of gay sex. Twenty-three-year-old David, a jockey will desperately lust after Robby’s older sister, but the girl’s continual spurning of his desires, and the sexual frustration caused as a result, may put his promising horse racing career in peril. Amongst all this familial turmoil however, a polyglot city on the edge of social upheaval manages to steal the show in breathtaking fashion.

It’s hard not to get swept away by the honesty of the Goren’s language and Greenspan’s translation of it. There are countless moments of emotion that feel effortlessly real, multifaceted, and conflicted:

The thought didn’t make him feel any passion, only disgust. He was getting accustomed to the idea that boys could enjoy this, and though their parents would probably be angry if they caught them, the pleasure was worth the risk. But with girls … he was embarrassed by the mere idea of a girl seeing him naked.

In his introduction to the novel, writer André Aciman expounds upon the volatile nature of the setting:

This, after all, was a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-sexual, multi-everything society where Copt, Jew, Muslim, Catholic, and Greek Orthodox lived tolerably well together and where multilingualism was the order of the day. Everyone was part Levantine, part European, part Egyptian, and one hundred percent hodgepodge, just as everyone’s sentences were spiced with words and expressions lifted from French, Italian, Arabic, Ladino, Turkish, Greek, English, and whatever else came by. Tart-to-toxic bons mots in a mix of six to eight languages could singe you just enough to shake you up but without causing any damage. Similarly, the mix of populations was never perfect, and cultures and creeds jostled one another without scruple. There again, the tussling was amicable enough and never deadly. But no one was fooled for long. The peaceful coexistence of so many creeds and nationalities may have been asking too much of mankind and in the end was too good to be true. It never lasts; it never did.

For an even greater taste of what lies in store for you check out an excerpt from the novel’s opening chapter at the Jewish Book Council website.  To hear more from Goren himself, check out this video of the Between Two Worlds panel from last week’s Brooklyn Book Festival.

Alexandrian Summer was published by New Vessel Press in May.

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About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.