Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Laundry (A Review)

By Suzane Adam
Translated by Becka Mara McKay
Autumn Hill Books
250 pages
November 1, 2008
Lost in Translation Challenge Book #6

I feel almost like an archaeologist, chipping away at a widening pit, descending into it, into another room, a maze. I don't understand anything. I didn't know any of it, violating the oath of years of silence. In my family we always screamed the truth in each other's faces. This did not make me any happier, though at least we knew each other's sore points; her family is partitioned, everyone nursing his own pain.

Suzane Adam's 2000 novel Laundry (translated from Hebrew by Becka Mara McKay) has been described as a "psychological thriller," but I'm not sure "thriller" is the right label for it. That word makes me think of a mass-market paperback you'd purchase at CVS along with the shampoo, makeup, and Tylenol. I could be wrong, but to me, Laundry was indeed intensely psychological, but also possessing the depth and lyricism of literary art that transcends mere genre. It is also a tale of the human mind - one that becomes even more disturbing when the reader considers the following:
  • Superficial charm
  • Criminal versatility
  • Reckless disregard for the safety of self or others
  • Impulse control problems
  • Pathological lying
  • Deceitfulness/manipulativeness
  • Aggressive or violent tendencies, repeated physical fights or assaults on others
  • Lack of empathy
  • Lack of remorse, indifferent to or rationalizes having hurt or mistreated others
  • A sense of extreme entitlement
  • Promiscuous sexual behavior, sexually deviant lifestyle
  • Lack of personal insight
  • Failure to follow any life plan
  • Inability to distinguish right from wrong
Adam definitely did her research: the clinical diagnostic criteria for psychopathy fits Yutzi with terrifying precision.

Laundry is told from the first-person POV of two narrators in Israel in the 1970s: Ephraim, the primary voice, and his wife Ildiko née Rott, who relates to him the story of her lonely, fearful childhood, including the mental and physical abuse she experienced at the hands of Yutzi. The book opens in an emotional whirlwind: Ephraim is confused, frightened, and deeply agitated by a recent, possibly violent, catastrophe involving Ildiko, who at first retreated into herself and is now finally ready to spill out the secrets of her past. Her family has no idea why what happened has happened. To them, twenty years ago in their native Transylvania, Yutzi had found five-year-old Ildiko wandering around after having been lost for three hours. Since then, Yutzi (whose troubled homelife included a morbidly obese, immobile mother and two violent, controlling brothers) has been an adopted daughter of sorts, with whom Ildiko's mother has maintained correspondence ever since the family's move to Israel when Ildiko was eight. Tiny, trusting Ildiko had idolized seventeen-year-old Yutzi as a beautiful older girl and followed her incessantly. In retaliation, Yutzi took her to the slaughterhouse where she worked. There, Ildiko witnesses the butchering of calves and the grotesque assembly of sausages, recalled in vividly surreal passages reminiscent of Mercè Rodoreda's haunting dystopic novella Death in Spring. Before taking her home, Yutzi threatens to "rip your guts out." Though sweet and gracious to Ildiko's parents and baby sister (even as she secretly steals from them), Yutzi continues to emotionally torment Ildiko behind their backs. Finally, one night shortly before the Rotts' move to Israel, Ildiko awakens to find Yutzi, who was supposed to be babysitting, having sex with Ildiko's best friend's father in the Rotts' living room. Yutzi attempts to smother her, but is stopped only by her alarmed lover.

Throughout her childhood, Ildiko's family will wonder at her withdrawn nature and frequent illnesses that only vanish when they leave Romania for good. Ephraim, a landscaper, will also tell the reader the story of how he met the quiet, introspective painter who lived at her mother's house where he tended the garden. He is fond of the Beatles and has had a pointless affair with a girl he met at a disco, all the while dreaming of a simple, loving wife who will enjoy nature as he does and want to sleep in Kinneret with him under the stairs. When telling Mrs. Rott what Ildiko had told him about darling Yutzi, his reward is yet another long-buried secret: Mr. and Mrs. Rott's own surival of the Holocaust. Laundry is ultimately a novel of silence buried in silence. In the Rott family, no one talks and the effect is similar to Freud's social theories on repression. Specifically: that the more of it you exercise, the greater the inevitable release of suppressed feelings, drives, and instincts. As in much Israeli literature, the Holocaust lurks as an omnipresent force that continues to shape the lives of the characters in the present. After all, Ildiko learned the principles of silence from somewhere.

Laundry is also a tale of female violence. When discussing this topic in another post from a pure fantasy standpoint, I referenced a brief essay by author Carrie Vaughn, who critiqued the tendency of speculative fiction writers to feel that they have to "explain" a woman's aggressiveness by giving her a victimized past. Of course, Vaughn was talking about the highly stylized and often supernaturally-enhanced combat found in urban fantasy. In Laundry, by contrast, Suzane Adam is realistic to an uncomfortable degree and sugar coats nothing. It can certainly be argued that Yutzi has also been victimized, but at the same time, Adam makes it quite clear that that is not the source of her twisted nature. Shirley Jackson once said that "some houses are born bad," and you can obviously say the same of humans.

But what made Laundry so different (to me, anyway) was its oddly feminine approach to violence and abuse. Ildiko had seen Yutzi as role model, a kind of like a real-life fairy princess. Despite her psychopathic personality, however, Yutzi, as a young woman, is also rendered powerless by society and is herself a casualty of male abuse. Although she is doubtlessly one of the most unsympathetic characters I have ever come across in fiction, I think Yutzi will force most readers to reconsider their notions of women as being the inherently "more moral" sex. I'm not trying to argue that "girls can be genocidal tyrants toooo," but I remember reading an article about Pfc. Lynndie England that mentioned how shocked people were that a woman could be responsible for such horrific behavior. But really, the article went on to say, when you deny that women can be brutal you also deny that they are fully human, with all of humanity's highs and lows. In Christian Jungersen's The Exception, the point is made repeatedly that "victimizing others is a part of human nature." (Incidentelly, The Exception also centered on female aggression, but in a stereotypically "hysterical female" manner.) Because Laundry is, above all, a powerfully human tale that explores the relationships between people and how they can be formed and deformed by trauma and pure evil. It certainly makes for uncomfortable reading, as its well-drawn, fully-realized characters beg for and demand empathy that will leave you almost shaking. In short: strongly recommended for anyone brave enough to take it.

Challenge Update

I have now completed the Lost in Translation Challenge!

Suzane Adam, Laundry (Hebrew)
Christian Jungersen,
The Exception (Danish)
Jakov Lind, Landscape in Concrete (German)
Ilja Pfeijffer, Rupert: A Confession (Dutch)
Mercè Rodoreda, Death in Spring (Catalan)
Jáchym Topol,
City Sister Silver (Czech)


Lsrry said...

I'm always brave enough for these sorts of books, so I just placed an order for it, as your review piqued my interest quite a bit.

In return, here's a novel you can add to your translated fiction list: Thomas Glavinic's Night Work. Just finished reading it. It is disturbing without any overt acts of violence taking place. Imagine waking up and you were the only living creature on the planet. Remember that humans are social animals. Throw in some excellent introspective prose and connections to all sorts of human issues. Note that this takes place in only 375 pages.

Curious? I hope to have a review up in 1-2 weeks, depending on end-of-term stuff here.

Eileen said...

Larry, thank you so much! I just looked up Night Work and it sounds great. Exactly something I'd like. I was pretty disappointed by I Am Legend, which has a similar theme, but this sounds much better. Again, thanks!

Just re-read this review. . . Not one of my better ones. I really didn't make it clear who Yutzi was.

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