Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
hardcover, 208 pp., 1. edition
translation: Zucker, Alex
published: april 2018
recommended price: 380 czk
This book is subtitled "A Humorous – If Possible – Novella from the Ghetto.” It was published in 1969 by a famous satirist from Prague, a co-creator of the "small form theater” and a contributor to the humorous Porcupine magazine. The author’s coming of age in the Terezín Ghetto presents a unique image amongst the volumes of the Holocaust literature, combining death and terror with absurdity and humor as well as stark openness. The traditional image of the world of adults viewed through the eyes of a child is constructed in a humorous manner, however, through laughter it also presents experience that is beyond description.
The text, translated into English by Alex Zucker and with and epilogue by Jáchym Topol, is followed by personal memories of the author’s sister, film documentarian Zuzana Justmanová.
Laughing in the Dark: On J. R. Pick’s “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals”
TO WRITE A NOVEL that makes you laugh is a great skill; to write a novel that takes place in a ghetto and still makes you laugh is a true feat. Jiří Robert Pick’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals does that and more. On the one hand, it is a paean to the human character, which fights for survival and dignity in the face of certain death. On the other, it is the tender and surprisingly funny story of one boy in extraordinary circumstances.
Jiří Robert Pick wrote from experience. He and his family arrived in Terezín in 1943. In the afterword to the book, his sister Zuzana Justman, a documentary filmmaker and writer, recalls how her brother became paralyzed after an attack of polio. He also contracted tuberculosis and remained in the hospital until the end of the war. Their father perished in Auschwitz, Zuzanna and their mother immigrated to Argentina, while Pick remained in Prague, where he continued writing scripts for film and theater. He died in 1983.
Recently, I had the chance to ask Alex Zucker, the translator behind this exquisite English version, about his approach to the unusual humor in the book. He responded: “Of course I had a lot of back and forth with Zuzana about the particulars of life in Terezín, to make sure that I was translating all the terms correctly, and as far as the humor goes too, I depended on Zuzana a great deal as a reader to let me know if she thought I had missed a joke.”
In his informative afterword, the contemporary Czech author Jáchym Topol speaks about his own childhood memories of Pick and of later reading the novel: “a good book is a culmination of anxiety, not an escape from it. Why is it so important to be able to joke about the greatest horrors? So that we don’t choke to death on the blackness.” In Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, absurdity and black humor are the very tools of survival, a way through the nightmare. This powerful and moving book helps us make peace with, if not sense of, the unthinkable.
A. M. Bakalar (Los Angeles Review of Books, April 15, 2018)
A. M. Bakalar is the author of two novels, Madame Mephisto (2012) and Children of Our Age (2017).