Art of the Litany

Jergović uses lists often and to great effect. Some are longer than others. I think it is litany rather than catalogue, though I could see someone arguing for the latter. Litany has an effect of prayer or incantation, and these seem more like that to me. It would be strange to focus on their informational quality.

This one, from a remarkable, seventy-page story called “The Match Juggler,” conveys well what I have in mind:

He would sit in the park, his back turned toward the fountain, his thumbs pressed against the back of a bench, as he flicked the matches with his fingertips, one after another, miniature torches that would burn out in the air, leaving no trace of themselves behind. They would turn to smoke and dust, just as the Jewish people, in a year, or two, or three, would turn to dust and smoke. And this would be a wonder, in which no one would believe, for to whom would it occur to do away with six million largely peaceful and unarmed people, harmless castoffs who stepped aside for others, small shop owners, mean money-lenders, gullible bankers, and industrialists, rabbis, village lackeys, shoemakers, lottery ticket salesmen, small time crooks and con men, idealists, communists and Zionists, soft-spoken worshippers afraid of life but even more of what comes after, famous doctors, surgeons, pediatricians, and psychoanalysts, disciples of Doctor Freud, whom the Nazis did not kill when they found him in his Vienna apartment, exiling him to London instead, for Doctor Freud, too, was a match juggler, the professors of biology who created the most beautiful herbariums in the history of Europe, archivists, librarians, and village teachers, whose worried wives concealed their Jewish heritage, great German poets and travel writers, who had journeyed all the way to India and Nepal in order to leave their testimonials to the German culture, circus performers and circus owners, village carpenters, proprietors of pawnshops and rare books, chemists and manufacturers of poison, barbers, mystics, tricksters of great imagination, quacks who for tiny sums would make the rounds of apartments in the center of town, performing abortions on the underage daughters of the city’s solicitous gentlemen, philosophy professors, peaceful and smiling like the Buddha, in whom the idea of world revolution and rebirth fermented, of a happy time for humanity, which would arrive once it had passed through the frightful twentieth century, building custodians, owners of small kosher restaurants at the border of the ghetto, where non-Jews were also welcome, handymen, servant girls, midwives, the authors of the first Aztec, Turkish, and Aramaic grammars, blind and deaf painters, idlers, dreamers, and devoted bookkeepers, industrialists with no heart for their workers or their workers’ rachitic children, who would not live long, rag merchants, peddlers, roofers, ice cream vendors, loafers, porters, dish washers and dish dryers in communal kitchens, where the Jewish poor found food, philanthropists, sponsors, coin collectors and counterfeiters, false prophets, proselytes and neophytes, who changed faith late for by then Nazism had come along? To whom, really, would turning all these people into smoke and ash have occurred? Or a better question: who would have believed that someone who desired to make all these people disappear would come forth and that his desire would be realized?

This is one paragraph. The manner in which the wonder (čudo) of the match juggler’s art and the wonder of the Holocaust is tied together, with a nod to Freud’s match juggling artistry, is rich and full.

The list is a bit like an aria in the midst of the recitative of the narrative proper. Time stops, and we’re invited to reflect and feel. This as a rule takes me longer to translate, and I feel the need to look up words I know. I’m not sure why. Maybe it affects my own sense of time as I’m trying to create the English as well.

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