A story of survival gets lost in translation

By Nan Goldberg
Globe Correspondent / January 29, 2011

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As H.G. Adler’s novel begins, Josef is a small child on his way to downtown Prague with his grandmother to see the “panorama’’: colorful tableaus of famous landmarks — Vesuvius, Niagara Falls, the Great Pyramid — that can be viewed for the price of a ticket.

But the word “panorama’’ also describes this novel’s structure, which depicts Josef’s life in 10 meticulous tableaus ranging from his childhood, between the world wars, to post-World War II. The scenes occur in a seemingly eternal, yet somehow urgent present and lack any connective tissue: no context; no transitions between scenes; no dates to tell you when, where, or why; not even a sense of time passing, except that in each new scene Josef has grown older.

The panorama visit is a rare happy day for young Josef, whose life — at home, at the foster home to which he is inexplicably sent, and later at boarding school — is mostly miserable.

In adolescence, the atmosphere lightens a bit as Josef joins the Wanderers, a boys’ club that boasts strict standards and a definite philosophy — mostly having to do with not being a “philistine’’ (a broad category that includes teachers and parents).

Philosophy fascinates Josef. During his years as a student, tutor, and young academic, his philosophical quest continues, diverging in several directions including a flirtation with the spiritual realm.

But then Hitler invades Czechoslovakia, rendering all attempts to discover life’s meaning cruelly irrelevant. Josef, a Jew, is taken prisoner and sent to a work camp and later a death camp.

In the final chapter, Josef is living in voluntary exile in London, trying to integrate the disparate facts of his life into a coherent whole that will permit and justify some kind of future.

Adler’s conceit, the panoramic structure, is surprisingly effective: As you absorb each tableau and go on to the next, it becomes possible to look out over Josef’s life from one end to the other, as a member of the dynamic millennial culture of Jewish Prague — which Hitler dismantles and obliterates in less than 10 years.

And in retrospect, the vile elements that converged to permit the annihilation of so many millions were visible earlier in Josef’s history, stalking Jewish lives with the single-minded appetite of a vampire and relentlessly growing stronger.

Adler, a Czech Jew, was himself imprisoned in several work camps and death camps. He wrote “Panorama,’’ his first novel, soon after being liberated from Buchenwald in 1945. But it did not find a publisher for 20 years, and has only now been translated into English.

Unfortunately, this translation is virtually unreadable.

Granted, Peter Filkins, an award-winning translator, must have torn out his hair trying to reproduce in English Adler’s endless stream-of-consciousness German sentences. But acknowledging the task’s difficulty doesn’t change the fact that the result is a tangle of clumsy, uncoordinated sentences, painful to read: “. . .[M]emory is of no use, no matter how good and helpful it can be, but the present is something else, it being full of surprise and the unforeseeable, such that one should even dispense with any notion of free will, the desire for a view of the future that reveals all being unacceptable, Josef searching for the right words and finding that, yes, this desire is in fact impure, unclean, it is sinful, although he cannot deny that the horrible present circumstances prod each of us day in, day out, to conjure such a wish, at which Simon asks, ‘Do you have any hope, Josef?’ ’’

Actually, there is hope for Josef, but none for this translation of “Panorama.’’ Imre Kertesz’s powerful novel “Fateless’’ has a story and outcome that resonate in similar ways. If you have a choice, read that one.

Nan Goldberg, a freelance writer and book critic, can be reached at


Translated, from the German, by Peter Filkins

Random House, 450 pp., $26