Book Review - Sefer

Ewa Lipska is an acclaimed Polish poet and a major figure in European literature. Hopefully, this new translation of her complex, haunting novella, Sefer, will widen her English readership.

Lipska's main protagonist is Jan Sefer, a psychotherapist, who enjoys a comfortable existence in Vienna attending concerts, dining with friends and colleagues and browsing bookshops. An only child, Sefer had "a remarkably original father", whose publishing house "helped him cope with his fear of depressive memories and with claustrophobia."

Sefer's father narrowly escaped death under the Nazis but repressed his memories, offering his son only snapshots of his experiences: the smell of mothballs that overpowered his senses as he hid from the Germans in a wardrobe or the sound of a soldier firing into a rucksack when a baby starts crying. By contrast, because of his profession, Sefer finds himself "linked forever with the demons of our time."

After receiving a package from Argentina containing a manuscript addressed to his dead parent, Sefer's curiosity is piqued. His father appears to have been connected to fellow Poles in Argentina involved in the tracking down of Nazi criminals. It prompts Sefer to visit Kraków, his father's birthplace and the town where his first sweetheart lived.

The sombre tone is leavened with Sefer's recollections of his dead aunt and her hilarious pronouncements, such as "Wine at noon is one of the things that expel man from this world." After Sefer decides to travel to Poland she begins to appear more often in his imagination, popping up in a hat shop or at a concert to urge him on his journey. In his bedroom, as he reaches for his sleeping pills: "'Why don't you marry her,' said my aunt, the enemy of all medicines: 'Noone else has married a tranquilizer yet. A wife like that's a treasure. Every night you just swallow her and that's it. Marry her!'"

When Sefer arrives in Kraków he meets and enjoys a romantic dalliance with the grand-daughter of his father's old flame. They pore over a faded album, "photographs guard the past", and she introduces him to an affluent crowd similar to the one he mixes with in Vienna. After all, as Sefer notes, the European Union is "a multi-narrative novel."

Lipska is strong on mood and Sefer is peopled with an array of interesting characters. Her lyrical passages are beautifully translated by Barbara Bogoczek and Tony Howard. Vienna is described as the land "where Mozart melts in chocolate and the Sonata No. 10 in C Major resounds inside every praline." References to music, literature and art abound, although some may prove obscure for English readers. Just as Sefer fails to truly understand his father's past, I couldn't help but feel that there are strands of this fiction that remain tantalisingly just out of reach.

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