Having covered 16 of the 17 titles in the A-B section of the TIMES 100 books list (the 17th, Robert Penn’s 1946 book, ‘All the King’s Men’ I could not locate), I am now into the C-D section. Of the 13 books, I had read only 4 – Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch 22’, JD Salinger’s ‘The catcher in the rye’ and Anthony Powell’s ‘A dance to the music of time’ which I have enjoyed at various times in the past and Willa Cathar’s ‘Death comes for the Archbishop’, one of the rare books I abandoned half way!! So, ‘Call it sleep’ was the 5th – an American classic, the quintessential East European Jewish immigrant story, set in the 1920s.
The story is told in the voice of the young 7 year old boy,David, to whom the language and culture of New York are new and intimidating. He has to cope with the Yiddish spoken at home, the English of the streets, the more formal Hebrew of his religious class. He has to negotiate the hostile streets, a very dominating and unsympathetic father, a traditional Rabbi at his religious school. But the smothering love of his mother, for whom David is the center of existence, over rides all the hostile factors around him up to a point. And then it all climaxes, a result of his inability to negotiate every day life of the streets around him.
Roth captures the young mind so well – the voice of confusion and fear that David lives in, comes through so clearly. It brought to mind Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’, in which too the complex adult world is wonderfully captured through the voice of a young boy, albeit in a different time and a different context. The ability to authentically speak from that space, is indeed a talent.
The other striking feature of this book, is the use of different languages to convey the immigrant story. And it was interesting, in that I read this right after this year’s Booker winner “A brief history of seven killings”, which also resorts to a range of languages (of course, variations of English in this case) to convey the mixed society in which the story is set.
Much of Roth’s book also revolves around the burden of Jewishness, the religious conflicts and is replete with religious allegories which I am unfamiliar with. I guess, it is not a universal story and has to be appreciated in its context. But for me, it was a bit of a task to complete.