The Canvas by Benjamin Stein


The more you lose the less you see

I’m going to fail miserably at describing this book.  Not just its contents, but the physicality of the object, which is so important in this particular instance because it represents a uniqueness that could never be properly replicated digitally in this current age of massive e-reading adoption.  This is not a book to be read on your Kindle or your iPad or your nook.  This is an object that you have to interact with beyond the expected page turning that normally goes along with cracking open a book and it serves as a reminder that no matter how handy our electronic devices may be; in some instances they simply can’t replace the experience of reading a physical book.

The first striking thing of note about The Canvas is that it has no back cover.  Instead it has two front covers which are almost the same image but with reverse coloring.  Whichever side you’re looking at, the text on the opposite side is upside down, meaning that to read anything from the other side you literally have to flip the book over.

Each front cover serves as a different entry point for a story narrated by one of the novel’s two protagonists.  How they are connected is unclear until their stories eventually converge in the center.  You can read the book however you see fit.  In fact, that’s exactly what you’re encouraged to do.  Each front cover clearly states:

There are two main paths and intertwined side trails running through this novel.  Behind each cover is a possible starting point for the action.  Where you begin reading is up to you, or to chance.

Perhaps you’d like to start on Amnon Zichroni’s side, read his story in its entirety, flip the book over then and do the same with Jan Wechsler’s side.  You could also choose to start on Jan’s side, read his tale completely and then flip the book over and read Amnon’s tale.  Or you could do what I did.  Start on one side, read one chapter from either protagonist, then flip the book over and read a chapter from the other, alternating between the two points of view until they finally begin to come together and the larger picture is revealed.

I started on Amnon’s side for no particular reason.  His tale starts in his teenage years, where he discovers that he has the unique ability (or perhaps curse) of being able to physically experience the memories of others as if he himself had lived through them by simply touching any given individual.  As the novel progresses he grows up to become a psychoanalyst and meets a man named Minsky who supposedly survived the Holocaust as a child and has written a memoir about his experiences.  He’s the figure that ties these two wildly different tales together.

Jan Wechsler is living a quiet life with his wife and children.  He owns and operates a small independent publishing house.  When a representative of an airline arrives at his door one day to return a suitcase that supposedly was lost when he took a flight to Israel, Jan realizes that he might be having memory issues.  He used to have a suitcase like the one being delivered, but it was destroyed years ago.  He hasn’t flown to Israel recently.  Things only get more confusing when he reluctantly opens the suitcase and examines its shocking contents.  Could he be leading a double life?  Are his memories false?  He begins a quest for answers.

Steeped in Jewish religious traditions (so much so that a glossary is included at the end of both sides of the book) and sprinkled throughout with delightful literary references (a retelling of the plot description of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is enthralling), The Canvas culminates in a mind blowing ending that could easily be interpreted in different ways depending on what order the reader initially chose to ingest the story.  Stein pushes the limits of how we as individuals each perceive the exact same events in uniquely different ways as he explores the boundaries of what memory is on a quest that ultimately seeks to unmask the truth with regards to his chosen subjects.

Of course the problem is that the truth of any situation is rarely ever black or white.  Zichroni.   Wechsler.  Minsky.  Believe all of them or believe none of them, just make sure you put aside your e-reading device long enough to allow them to introduce you to their extraordinary stories.  Your hands will be doing flips as you manipulate the physical book to switch between the tales, but more importantly so will your brain as you attempt to process the reality behind the intricately structured puzzle Stein has delivered.

The_Canvas ★★★★★
The Canvas
By Benjamin Stein
Translated from the German by Brian Zumhagen
Open Letter Books
(2010) 2012
330 Pages
ISBN 9781934824658

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.