Let me strongly recommend Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, one of five nominees for the 2013 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Lerner, a poet, writes a seemingly autobiographical book about a poet’s fellowship year in Spain, where he spends most of his time getting high, sitting on park benches, pretending to research something about literature and the Spanish Civil War, and fretting that he isn’t being understood by the artsy crowd of young Spaniards he meets in galleries and bars. Worse, he’s worried that he is being understood, often preferring that his interlocutors interpret his halting Spanish as an inability to convey the profound and deep recesses of his artist’s soul.
Lerner is dead serious and sometimes a little pedantic about his themes of translation, the boundaries between life and art, and the inadequacies of language, but the book is propulsive and very funny — maybe what Woody Allen might have come up with if instead of going into show biz had gotten a BA in political science and an MFA in creative writing.
I also enjoyed Lerner’s portrait of the Year Abroad — both the attractions of reading and writing and being twenty-something with minimal responsibilites and a foreign city at your feet, and the limbo of being in your 20s, living in a foreign city, and having no idea where any of this is going to lead. I had a taste of this when I lived in Jerusalem just after college, on a sort of Jewish version of the “Peace Corps.”
Like Erika Dreifus, I’m not at all sure why this book qualifies for a Jewish literature prize, since there isn’t a Jewish reference or character, explicit or coded, on any of its 186 pages. No Inquisition, no talk of the marranos (conspicuous in its absence, since the narrator is both an admitted liar and worries about being found out as an imposter), little mention of Catholicism and no mention of the Moors. The protagonist, Adam Gordon, like Lerner, is from Topeka. Perhaps the judges just automatically treat smart, funny, dark, and verbally nimble books about literature and alienation as Jewish.