by Carl Friedman
Translation by Jeannette K. Ringold
1993 in the Dutch
1996 in English
Persea Books, NY
The first thing you must know is that Carl Friedman is a woman. I was confused at the beginning of the novel because the gender of the protagonist isn’t mentioned and since the author had a male name, I assumed (with ingrown sexism natural even to us women) that the person working in a florist shop making funeral wreathes, who also worked as a dishwasher plagued by cockroaches, and who studied Philosophy was a young man.
It’s not until sometime in the second chapter that our hero is revealed as a woman, when she applies for a job as a nanny with an Hasidic family, and is chided for wearing pants. As I read and realized this, I gave a sigh of relief, thinking, “She’s just like me, does everything. She’s capable.”
The Shovel and the Loom is a small book, but a very good one. By turns it is very funny, and very interesting, including philosophical conversations between the twenty-year-old Chaya and her elderly friend Mr. Apfelschnitt, and wonderful interactions with a three-year-old who would love to be a duck, and who quacks quietly as they walk through the park. We learn about Chaya’s parents, who are both Holocaust survivors and who are dealing with the legacy of the war in their own separate ways. Each time we meet them, another small fact is revealed about their character, the kind of thing that makes the reader have to stop and think.
Set in Antwerp, the book was originally written in Dutch. I very highly recommend it.