Review: Arnold Zable’s “Cafe Scheherazade”

by writereaderly

Martin, a “no-good scribbler”, makes his way to a café in St Kilda in search of a news story, but instead is entranced in the history of the café’s owners, three of the regulars, and the café itself. Avram and Masha have been running their small piece of Mitteleuropa since 1959, when they arrived in Australia as WWII refugees. Yossel, Laizer and Zalman come daily to drink their strong coffee, and slowly share their stories of war and emigration with the scribbler. Martin deciphers their various Yiddish accents as they trace their separate flights from Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania) to Siberian workcamps, Shanghai’s shortlived Jewish ghetto, a Parisian nightclub rendezvous and reincarnation in Melbourne.

This is a wonderful book, hypnotic and historical at the same time. I wasn’t excited about the idea of another WWII tragedy, but each character’s tale was so absorbing, and Zable’s touch so deft, that this book was a delight. I kept finding myself stopping to reread sections that were written so limpidly that I’d lost the meaning in my urge to say with the rhythm of the language. The heartaches were powerfully written but not dwelt on in any callous way, and the vibrancy of each city and each scene makes this 1001 nights alive and rich. Zable obviously researched his wanderers’ tales quite thoroughly, but you never feel like you’re being forced through a lesson on Jewish migrations – and more importantly, you don’t come out of the book with a heartache yourself. Instead, Café Scheherazade sings of home, and community, and story, and sanctuary. It made me feel grateful, once again, to live far from war and near to the home of my heart.

Beautiful and highly recommended.

Where it came from: KT’s Housesat Bookshelf
Time taken to read: Three bed-nights
Where it went to: Back on the shelf
Reminds me of: Its poetic tone is similar to Annie Dillard’s “The Maytrees”
Who I’d recommend it to: HG
Also reading: “The Heart of the Matter” by Graham Greene; “The Blind Eye” by Georgia Blain; “Cold Comfort Farm” by Stella Gibbons; “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce, “Gertrude” by Hermann Hesse; “Black Swan Green” by David Mitchell

Post-Script: A version of this review appears in the June-July 2012 edition of the Terania Times.