Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics) (March 1, 1990)
A note: although the titles are the same this book is not connected in any way to Sofia Coppola’s Oscar-winning Lost in Translation movie.
Eva Hoffman is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, a Jewish couple who miraculously managed to remain hidden during the WWII and avoided death. After the war they settled down in Cracow (Kraków) but at the end of an anti-Semitic purge, initiated by Polish communists in the 50s, they decided enough was enough and emigrated to Vancouver (1959). Eva, a clever, sensitive girl and a budding pianist, felt it especially keenly – at the tender age of 13 had to find a way to integrate with a completely new culture in a country she hardly knew anything about.
Hoffman’s story doesn’t sound like a typical tale of great immigrant success. It is richer, more complex and more ambiguous for one thing. The first section of the book, “Paradise,” centers on Eva’s childhood and happy early adolescence in Cracow. “Exile” describes the voyage to Canada and her years in Vancouver, while “The New World” recounts the long process of her assimilation as an American (she studied and then has made career in the USA) and her discovery that she is finally at home in the new reality. All of it is peppered with vivid anecdotes and vigorous philosophical insights on Old World Cracow and Ivy League America; it also includes the poignant story of her parents’ survival during the war and how they coped in post-war Poland and Canada. Let me only say here that Eva’s parents, like many other emotionally scarred war heroes and survivors, had the most difficult path to follow.
What I liked:
At the beginning I was worried that this book would be too much about anti-Semitism in Poland and elsewhere, which is still a trendy subject, but it was not the case. Eva Hoffman wrote a penetrating, lyrical memoir – she describes Polish anti-Semitism as she and her family were its victims but also the degradations suffered by immigrants in Canada; her own cultural nostalgia combined with self-analysis and intellectual passion. I loved such a rich mixture but I admit sometimes the language of the book was so sophisticated that I had to look up a word or two in my biggest dictionary – it was not an “easy” read.
The plot was very well-paced, not too lengthy, not too fast. The bits she wrote about Poland were truly spot-on in more than one way – I could relate to young Eva without any problems. What’s more, the book helped me to imagine and to organize the strange sensations that come with the leaving/arriving to another country. How the language affects the way we think, act and joke, how sadness and happiness are mingled into one strange feeling, how we cope and forget without noticing, and how we urge to succeed and prove that we can be part of the new country. Finally how every country has its advantages and disadvantages (the grass is greener on the other side of the fence just because we imagine it to be so).
Hoffman’s book title is a bit misleading, for in the end the novel celebrates all that is not lost in translation: the shared humanity that enables people to cross linguistic and cultural borders, sometimes against the odds. The ending is very positive.
What I didn’t like:
Here I have a real problem for the first time. I liked pretty much everything – even the fact that this book wasn’t so easy to read and from time to time it forced me to extend my English vocabulary.
It is a book I would recommend to anyone who would want to understand immigrants better but especially to those who have been thinking about going to a foreign country for an extended period of time. Even in the era of the Internet and cable TV, when it seems we’ve seen everything everywhere, there are aspects of immigration which you won’t understand until you experience them yourself. This book hints at them teaching a very valuable lesson.