From Yiddish writer and political activist Zigmunt Leyb, this week’s Translation Tuesday centers on Shchepliak, an old man living a bleak and lonely life in Vienna. Written nearly a century ago, Leyb’s writing nonetheless feels modern in its spareness and simplicity.
Shchepliak lives in a little room that is long and narrow. Its high, empty walls are gray, the uppermost edges a mix of dark patches of shadow and broad swaths of cobwebs. Shchepliak roams about his room, measuring. He moves his rags from one spot to another, mends a hole, sews on a patch. And when he is beset by an attack of gray yawning, which makes his small eyes fill with salty tears, he sets down the bundles, rubs his eyes, and looks around the room. He then walks slowly over to one patch of empty wall and directs his eyes toward a yellowed stain. He raises his head, his eyes boring into the yellow stain as he thinks and thinks—until the loud chime of a clock somewhere frightens him, interrupting the dull muddle of his changeless thoughts.
Shchepliak perks up his ears, wrinkles his narrow brow, opens his mouth like a pitiful child, and listens to the chime of the clock.
As it is not yet twelve, he purses his lips sourly and returns to roaming about the room. Now to the left side of the wall, now to the right. Until he once again stops at some spot and remains standing there, hands clasped together like a frozen statue.
Just as the clock outside again remembers and chimes twelve, Shchepliak stirs. He wraps himself in his green cape with the gray spots that once were black and walks down to the street.
The street is full of hot, hungry breath. Seamstresses rush hastily through the great gate and deafen the street with their loud cries.
Heavy blue people with jackets thrown over their broad shoulders push through the street with ponderous steps and dusty bass voices.
When Shchepliak needs to cross the street, that’s precisely when a car suddenly appears, and the driver and the screaming horn make a terrible racket, terrifying everyone.
But Shchepliak is not frightened. He does not even know it was directed at him.
He walks quietly, slowly, shuffling along the wall, wrapped in his cape, shrunken like an old, hunchbacked crone.
At the tavern door he stops mechanically and reads what’s written in white on the black slate:
“Today for lunch there will be dumplings and cabbage.”
As Shchepliak descends the steps he tries to remember what he ate for lunch yesterday.
“Dumplings and cabbage is probably better . . .”
The tavern is long, narrow, and low. In the middle stand square, whitewashed posts. Around the posts are tables. And there are tables by the walls. Up at the ceiling are three large electric lamps, covered in gray dust. Below—light and shadow.
Shchepliak shuffles over to his table, which stands in an empty corner. In that corner the ceiling sags down to your head, so no one sits there.
Shchepliak takes off his cape, folds it carefully, lays it down on the bench, and sits down on top of it. He then takes a yellow note out of his breast pocket and sets it on the table.
He waits for the waitress with the white apron to come. He waits for a long time. And when she does come, she knows already. She knows him: after all, he comes in twice a week. Twice a week that yellow note gives him a free lunch.
Sometimes it’s dumplings and cabbage, sometimes it’s potatoes and cabbage, and other times kasha and cabbage.
“But dumplings and cabbage is probably better . . .”
And what’s more, you always get soup.
But the soup has nothing in it, as the dumplings do, for example. Rather it is clear, like a limpid stream. A red carrot drifting below and some green parsley above. But that’s why there’s a tin plate with two rolls on the table. On every table a tin plate with two rolls. But you have to pay extra for that, so Shchepliak always takes one roll. That much will suffice.
Until the soup arrives—after an excessively long amount of time—his little eyes range over the rolls or over the other people sitting around the tavern.
Shchepliak takes the measure of the rolls, their length, their width; he weighs them precisely with his little eyes. And when the soup finally arrives on the table, he takes one of the rolls from the tin plate.
“Who can know?”
Later, however, when he is back outside on the street and heading home he thinks it over again.
“Maybe the other one really was bigger . . .”
His room is long and narrow. Its high, empty walls are gray, the uppermost edges a mix of dark shadows and broad swaths of cobwebs.
In the evening he sits by the window. He watches the dark roofs and red chimneys. It’s all the same, whether clouds spread, winding around the chimneys, or whether beams of setting sunlight reflect on the dark roofs.
Shchepliak has been sitting by the window for years and is still no clearer on what good it does.
Leaden thoughts burden his mind. The long gray years are stifling his marrow, devouring him piecemeal, chilling his blood. Shchepliak’s little eyes are gray, extinguished. They are unblinking; they are trained on one point and see only dark roofs and red chimneys.
When night obscures his window with its coarse darkness, Shchepliak stands up. He takes a hard piece of bread out of the drawer, puts it in his pocket, and goes out into the street.
The stairs are narrow, winding downwards like a wheel. A half-consumed gas mantle burns, and overhead a song of endurance is being hummed. Shchepliak’s shadow slips across the peeling walls and gets lost in the tall, dark gateway.
The street is dark, the houses drawn close, one looming over another. And above them all a narrow strip of dark blue sky. On the street corner, a gas lamp burns. The lamp dances, blows, whistles, and casts an autumnal melancholy over the lonely passers-by. Hardly listening, Shchepliak walks, taking tiny little steps. His shadow trails him. He cuts through little alleys, narrow in length and width, till he reaches the Danube. He descends the narrow stone steps to the riverbank and walks along the canal. He encounters a woman lying there, her head covered with a rag. A little dog comes running up, stops, takes a sniff, and runs on.
The water is still. A trolley crosses a bridge, shuddering in the air, and gets lost in the distance. Little flames escaping high-story windows dance in the water, bespeaking warm, cozy homes.
Shchepliak’s well-worn soles hardly touch the stones.
He walks lightly, quietly, slowly, like the dark water close by.
As the houses disappear he remains standing. He sits down on the edge, searching out into the depth of the water for one point. His little, filmy eyes immerse themselves deeply, deeply into that point. He, Shchepliak, sees all of his years swimming in that depth—long, gray, emaciated, old fish; severed fins, short tails, sunken bellies. There they swim, those fish, not along but down, into the depth. They dive, one bounding over another, and plunge deeper and deeper, their heads down.
When the autumn chill seeps into his old, dried bones, he stands up. Shchepliak rubs his hands together, shaking all over like an old, scolded dog, and, wrinkled and hunched, goes back the way he came.
Dark, narrow alleys, cramped houses, one looming over another. And above them a narrow strip of dark blue sky.
Zigmunt Leyb (alternately Ziskind Lyev and Sigmunt Löw; 1896-1937) was a Yiddish writer, journalist, and political activist. A native of Galicia, he fought in World War I and moved to Vienna as a journalist. His career and political engagement took him from Austria to Germany, Poland, and ultimately the Soviet Union, where he was arrested in 1936 on political charges and sent to a forced labor camp near Vladivostok, where he died, possibly having been shot. Leyb’s writing has been noted for a style inflected variously by naturalism and expressionism, both of which are on display in his story “Shchepliak,” published in Vienna in 1928, a year after he joined the Austrian Communist Party. In it, he is able to convey in very few strokes the crushing weight of modern life’s monotony on one hapless soul.
Jordan Finkin is Rare Book and Manuscript Librarian at the Klau Library of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. A specialist in modern Jewish literature, he is the author of several books as well as scholarly essays and articles. Most recent among his translations from the Yiddish is Leyb Rashkin’s novel The People of Godlbozhits (2017). He is currently at work, with Allison Schachter, on translating a collection of stories by the Yiddish modernist Fradl Shtok.
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