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Michael Tregabov, former Winnipegger living in Spain


The Briss

 

Sharon Chisvin

IS MICHAEL TREGEBOV WINNIPEG'S RICHLER?

Plot involves Wpg Jewish man falling in love with Palestinian woman and becoming a human shield for Arafat

by Sharon Chisvin, December 27, 2010

[Editor"s note:   The Globe and Mail has written in regard to Tregebov's book The Briss:  Tregebov's Jewish Winnipeg raises echoes of Richler's Montreal." – the Globe and Mail. Hence the title for this article ]

As a Jewish Winnipeger and book reviewer I am always excited to read novels that are set in Winnipeg's Jewish community. There have been a few of these in recent years, including Sidura Ludwig's Holding My Breath, Rhea Tregebov's The Knife Sharpener's Bell and more recently Michael Tregebov’s The Briss, publilshed by New Star Books and a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize Best First Book, 2010.

Of the three, Michael Tregebov’s is the most contemporary, the most courageous, and certainly the one that portrays the local community in the least favourable light.  

As the novel opens, Sammy and Anna Ostrove receive a phone call from their son Teddy who they have sent to Israel on a Birthright program after he has embarrassed them by dropping out of medical school and having an affair with a Rabbi’s wife. While they hoped that he might find a nice Jewish girl on the trip, he informs them over the phone that instead he has fallen in love with a Palestinian woman, impregnated her, and also become a human shield for Yasser Arafat.

Each one of these pronouncements, of course, adds to Sammy and Anna’s shame. Worried they will be ostracized by friends and acquaintances, they wonder aloud where they went wrong and why their son would empathize with the enemy. Teddy tries to explain to them that he is only doing what they taught him by example. He is looking out for the underdog just as his father did when he fought for Israel in 1948 and like his mother does every week by volunteering at a food bank. 

Clearly, Tregebov, a poet and translator who Tregebov, who has called Spain home since 1982,  has hit on a timely topic. Although his novel takes place during Arafat’s reign, the issues and ideas it raises remain relevant today. Increasingly, as has been widely reported, young Jewish adults in the Diaspora are struggling with their relationship with Israel and the occupation and what some perceive as an intolerant, conservative stance by the established Jewish community (see http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/jun/10/failure-american-jewish-establishment/?pagination=false and http://www.jewishvoiceforpeace.org/blog/new-york-times-columnist-increasing-jewish-debate-over-israel). 

This is a critical concern for Diaspora communities that cannot be ignored.  

The fact that Tregebov raises this issue will undoubtedly cause discomfort with many readers. So too will his generally unfavorable depictions of Winnipeg Jews. Sammy and Anna, for example, call to mind Jerry Seinfeld’s parents, constantly harping on one another, yelling and insulting one another, and most of their supposed friends and fellow community members are equally stereotypically represented.

But the novel does offer many positive and realistic images of family life and dynamics too. The scenes between Teddy and his lawyer sister Marilyn and between them and their Baba are genuine and engaging.  

As a whole, the novel becomes more focused and less abrasive when Teddy’s girlfriend actually comes to Winnipeg and meets his parents. Heavily pregnant, bright and beautiful, she teaches them a thing or two about stereotypes and prejudging others. By the time the baby comes along, those lessons have been well learned.

EDITOR'S NOTE:

MORE ABOUT MICHAEL TREGEBOV: Tregebov obtained his BA in English from the University of Manitoba and his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. During that time, he published a book of poems, Changehouse. From 1982 to 1989, he taught American Literature and Translation at the American Institute in Barcelona, and from 1989 to 2004, English at Escuela Superior de Administracion y Direccion de Empresas, also in Barcelona.  Trgabov works for several organizations as a lexicographer and translator in Spanish, Catalan, French and English. A prolific translator, he has two William Carlos Williams translations from Lumen, a division of Random House Mondadori

Here is what a few other reviewers have said about Tregebov that may make you want to get your hands on a copy of  The Briss :

"The cast of players, from stars to walk–ons, are distinct and immediate ... The characters are in the room with you ... [The Briss] is a trend–breaker, aggressively funny and stealthily horrific, plus it doesn't fret about including serious discussions on the politics of war – sort of like Hemingway, but with stand–up panache in place of biblical cadences ... an equal literary might be at work here ... Tregebov's Jewish Winnipeg raises echoes of Richler's Montreal." – the Globe and Mail

"[Tregebov] has a pitch–perfect ear for language and dialogue ... The Briss ... teeters precariously between comedy and tragedy ... Tregebov, like other exceptional Winnipeg Jewish writers including Adele Wiseman and Miriam Waddington, ultimately succeeds on the force of his authenticity, which gives rise to genuine pathos and a comedic glimpse at the absurdity of life ... Buy it." – National Post 

The Briss ricochets from Winnipeg kitchens to the ravaged West Bank. Its family dialogues soar on absurdist realism: the illogic of resentments, clashing egos and dangerous ideals. Mixing humour with the stealthily horrific, Tregebov echoes the incisiveness of Hemingway on war, with stand–up panache in place of biblical cadences" – Jim Bartley's Top 5 for 2009 (the Globe and Mail)

"[A]n almost perfectly executed comic novel ... [a] mutigenerational comic gem" and "a wonderful debut ... Tregebov has a tone–perfect ear for dialogue in both settings, and a compassionate eye that finds humanity and humor in all his varied characters." – Vancouver Review

"[A] provocative novel [that's] ideal for those who like a little politics with their humour ... outrageously funny, even as it confronts hard questions of Palestinian, Arab, Israeli and Jewish identity." – Winnipeg Free Press

"Tregebov. . . isn't just interested in tackling the problems of the Middle East, but also in showing how remote conflicts can influence the lives of ordinary Canadians ... With such controversial subject matter, it's inevitable that The Briss is going to ruffle some feathers ... Tregebov paints a sympathetic and often funny portrait of an aging Jewish couple disappointed by their children, and ostracized by their friends." – Prairie Books NOW

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