By Bill Marx
On this week’s podcast I talk to Peter Filkins, an award-winning translator who walked into a Harvard Square bookstore, picked up an obscure novel written in German and, after reading a few pages, recognized that he had stumbled onto literary gold. Written in 1950, published in 1962, the book was one of the 26 volumes penned by H. G. Adler, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who sought to memorialize and understand the experience through fiction, poetry, social history, and philosophy The novel Filkins picked up, entitled “The Journey” in English, is considered the best of Adler’s novels; it was praised by Nobel prize winner Heinrich Boll and other heavyweights when it appeared in German, but because the novel was published by a small publisher it quickly fell into oblivion.
Filkins’s translation reveals an extraordinary work of fiction, a sophisticated, strikingly modern mix of dark satire, philosophical speculation, and lyrical surreality. The spiritual and physical displacement of the Holocaust is rendered with considerable power, yet Adler avoids mentioning the names of countries or camps. He does not even use the words Jews and Nazis. My conversation with Filkins ranged from why there are so few books about the Holocaust written in German by Jews who survived the camps to what problems “The Journey” presented to the translator. First, I asked Filkins to tell me more about how he discovered the book.
Given the depressing news from American publishing recently, especially the cuts backs at Random House, it is reassuring that the publisher recognizes Adler’s importance and has commissioned the translation of the 600 page follow-up to “The Journey.”