In between escapades in the Russo-Japanese War, the young Benno – a little big man in the Tzar’s army – blasted out fanfares on his cornet at all the wrong moments and puffed away on strong cigars. Except he was too young to fight in that war. Grandpa Benno’s right index finger also made it unscathed through the First World War – a war that he did in fact fight and was wounded in. The fateful event that stiffened and hooked his finger didn’t occur until the Second World War, but not on the frontline – in a bomb shelter when the rabbi’s knife slipped during his grandson’s circumcision.
This wild, tender and absurd history of a Jewish family making its way across Russia and Finland rides roughshod over history, recounting one crazy incident after another. For Katz’s protagonists it is an everyday reality to live on the brink of disaster, but they adapt to the situation with irony and resilience and, amazingly, without fear. And they do not retreat into a corner, they are not afraid to make contact with people, for they think it is possible to get on with other peoples and ways – the important thing is to stay alive.
‘My characters have nothing to do with reality, because none of them has existed in reality,’ Katz announced at the beginning of his debut novel. In When Grandfather Skied to Finland he draws on his family’s rich supply of stories and mixes them with East European Jewish lore, transforming a dark and tragic background of cruelty, pogroms and alienation into piquant, warm-hearted narratives about survival.
The publication of Katz’s debut novel coincided with the rise of Jewish literature in America. Katz is one of the cosmopolitans of Finnish prose – a humorist who entertains us with his wild imagination and sense of the absurd. He excels at mixing the twists and turns of the human soul with the chaos of the European history. Katz is also a humanist, who gently mocks the weaknesses of people and society. Katz’s novel also grows into a beautiful anti-war plea.
J.H. Erkko Prize (the Best Debut novel) 1969
English (USA) (Continental Publishing House)
Estonian (Loomingu Raamatukogu)
Hungarian (Móra Ferenc Könyvkiadó)
Norwegian (Mortenses Ernst G Forlag)
Serbo-Croatian (Nakladni zavod Znanje)
Slovene (Prešernova Družba)
Spanish (Libros del Asteroide)
Swedish (Almqvist & Wiksel)