In the mid-1990s, East German novelist Benjamin Stein crossed paths with then-celebrated Holocaust memoirist Binjamin Wilkomirski at a literary conference, in a pleasant enough encounter. Soon after, Wilkomirski was exposed as a fraud who had invented his identity as a child Holocaust survivor; in fact he was Christian, born and raised in Switzerland.
In The Canvas, a novel just translated from German into English, Stein takes that encounter and builds from it a riveting story, told in two parts, about two fictional men who become intimately involved in the rapid rise and subsequent fall of a Wilkomirski-like character named Minsky. One protagonist is Amnon Zichroni, who is sent away from his ultra Orthodox Jerusalem community after he’s discovered reading secular literature. Zichroni remains religious but also pursues training as a psychotherapist and later aids Minsky in delving into his traumatic past. The other protagonist is Jan Wechsler, the writer who exposes Minsky only, it seems, to then flee from his own past in a similar fashion. These two stories meet, literally (and dramatically), at the center of the book—you can begin either with Zichroni’s life or with Weschler’s and must turn the book over to get from one to the other.
Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry speaks with Benjamin Stein about this unusual novel and about the ruptures in his own past, first when as a teen he decided to become a practicing Jew (having been raised in a nonreligious, staunchly Communist family) and later with the fall of the Berlin wall. We also hear from the book’s translator, Brian Zumhagen, whose voice and name may be familiar to New York City listeners from his day job as a news anchor at WNYC. [Running time: 26:42.]