Cantor, Rachel. “Good on Paper”, Melville House, 2016.
Shira Greenberg is not happy with her life—nothing has happened, as she had planned it to. She is a single mother who lives with her daughter, Andi, and her gay Pakistani friend, Ahmad. He has a PhD based on Dante’s “Vita Nuova” which does not have any kind of job security or even a job and her career as a translator has barely begun. Shira surprisingly receives a telegram from Romei, a Nobel Prize laureate poet who says that he is the only one who can translate his newest book. With this, Shira realizes that her life could change and she sees a new beginning calling her forth. She can achieve academic fame and demands for her to translate if this works out and there is the added bonus that perhaps love in on the horizon since she feels good about the advances from a local bookstore owner.
However Shira also realizes that this is dependent on her translation and she begins to work only to discover that the book is impossible to translate. This postmodern version of Dante’s “Vita Nuova” focuses Romei’s relationship with his ill wife – and eventually starts to comment on Shira’s own life in surprising ways.
As we read, we learn that both Shira and Ahmad have a good deal of baggage. They have both had unhappy marriages and Shira mother has been missing for some time. We see many contrasts here and one of the most obvious to me was when Shira moved in with her gay best friend who joins her in co-parenting Andi. They have been living for years like this and this allows us to see how tenuous Shira’s life is. She has no regular job and works temp positions to say afloat. Let us just say that this light novel is also full of intelligent characters and serious thought. It is about poetry and language in large part. And in that way, the title really gives no hint to what the story is about.
In order for the book to work these contrasting ideas must come together… and they do. There is also a bit of mystery here. What did this Italian poet with all of his fame ask Shira to translate his book? What is his poem about anyway and does that play a part in the story? There are answers of course, but you will have to think about then for a while. I figured this out but only when I had read half of the book.
I am not sure how to classify this book; it seems to sit somewhere between reality and a dream world. Of course, this is not new to fiction; especially Jewish fiction and Saul Bellow used this in “Herzog” as did Philip Roth in “Portnoy’s Complaint”.
Jewish tradition seems to male Jewish intellectuals vulnerable to reality. Heroes of these perpetually surprised to find that life is not the way it appears in books.
Shira is led astray by Dante’s book and its poetry and prose by which Dante describes Beatrice, his lover and his love for her. We learn that as a graduate student, Shira translated “Viva Nuova”, and in it she saw a reflection of life and love as they were supposed to be, But when the man she was seeing falls way short of a paragon— he is married to someone else and Shira’s faith in both love and poetry is broken. We meet her after this has happened and she really does not seem to be going anywhere with either her professional or persona life.
When we meet Shira, this great disillusionment is already past, and she has settled into a makeshift life that seems to be going nowhere. I would have liked to know more of what happened in Shira’s life before the book began. We learn a little but not enough to satisfy my curiosity. We do know of disastrous love affairs and that her mother abandoned her when she was a child. This is the first book by Rachel Cantor that I have read but I see that she writes about literary parallels and philosophical musings. When her characters face guilt, they talk about Jewish theology, and when they endure lost love, they talk about Dante’s poetry. The main topic of novel is translation and it is not only the focus of the plot but it also drives the plot forward.
The character of the fictional Romei is invented by writer Cantor and she has done so with detail. He was born in Romania and he might be Jewish. After the war he moved to Italy where he wrote great Italian poems, and won the Nobel Prize. Shira cannot understand why he wants her to translate his new poem. Romei and Shira communicate only by fax and he sends only one section at a time of his poem and this lets Cantor fill the novel with paraphrases of this imaginary text. Shira is both ambivalent and excited about this intellectual challenge and it does not take long before her ambition interferes with her domestic duties. She begins to suffer maternal guilt
By letting the burden of parenting of Andi falls on Ahmad, she, in a sense, does the same thing that her mother did to her. As Shira reads more and more of Romei’s work, she considers the possibility of fidelity in translation, which of course becomes a metaphor for fidelity in love. This theme gives Cantor the opportunity to expand on literary-theoretical questions in a voice that is totally academic. Bringing together Shira’s story and Romei’s work into a unified whole is done by the use of a melodramatic twist that the reader will probably see coming long before the narrator does. What we really read here is “The miracle of a text moving from one language into another, the struggle to translate the languages of our own family to other people and to ourselves”.
This is a story of love, family, language, and flight that is completely entertaining on many levels. It is playful and smart which wonderfully drawn characters and insight into translation and it reminds me of what literature really is.