Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language by Eva Hoffman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Eva (originally Ewa) Hoffman's autobiographical book "Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language" is the fourth great book about childhood and growing up that I have read recently. It belongs in such a distinguished company as James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", John Coetzee's "Boyhood", and Amelie Nothomb's "Loving Sabotage". It is perhaps not as deeply intellectual as Joyce's work, not as fiercely social and political as the Coetzee's book, and not as utterly charming as the Nothomb's novel, but it is a great, wise, and deep book. Of course I may be biased - the book is mainly about the contrast between Polishness (which is my ethnicity) and Americanness. I am also both a Pole and an American (meaning USian) and I can relate to most things Ms. Hoffman writes about.
The author was born in a Jewish Polish family. When the political climate became milder in Poland in the late Fifties, the family was allowed to emigrate to Canada. Ms. Hoffman was 13 at that time, which is probably the most difficult age to emigrate. The family boards the ocean liner "Batory" and they finally arrive in Vancouver, after a trans-Canada train ride.
The book is built of three parts: the first, "Paradise", is mostly about the author's childhood in Cracow, Poland. I find that part most moving as I am about the same age and I remember a bit of the late 1950s. The second part, "Exile", is about Ms. Hoffman's youth in Canada and in the US, and in the third part, "The New World", she is a young adult or a grown-up. She studies at Rice University and at Harvard, and becomes a literary critic and a writer.
There are so many wonderful passages in the book that it would take me many, many pages to quote them. Let me just quote two fragments that so aptly characterize the essence of Polishness: "Politics, like religion, is a game, except almost no one - no one we know anyway - seems to believe in it. Poles don't need demystifying philosophies to doubt all sources of power and authority". And "A culture talks most about what most bothers it: the Poles talk compulsively about the Russians and the most minute shifts of political strategy. Americans worry about who they are." How very true this is!
I find the passages about becoming immersed in a new language the most fascinating - what becoming bilingual does to one's brain and to the worldview. It is like appreciating the world and life twice as much.
Four and three quarter stars.
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