Norman Ravvin (photo by Allen McInnis/The Gazette)
For anyone interested in the history and landmarks of Vancouver, especially, but also cities in Poland, reading Norman Ravvin’s new novel, The Girl Who Stole Everything (Linda Leith Editions, 2019), will take longer than its 310 pages would suggest. You’ll want to allot time for side trips to the internet to see what the Army & Navy building on West Cordova Street looked like in the middle of the last century, for example, or Stan Douglas’s mural at the Woodward’s complex of the 1971 Gastown riot. Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw? The main square in the town of Radzanów, Poland?
While The Girl Who Stole Everything is set in real places described in detailed accuracy by Ravvin, there is still much left to the imagination. The discovery of family secrets – in one case, which were literally buried; in the other, figuratively – leads to events that bring Vancouver dulcimer musician Nadia and bookseller-café owner Simon together and, eventually, take both to Poland. Nadia’s father never told her that her uncle, who owned a pawnshop on West Cordova, was murdered in 1962, beaten to death in a robbery gone wrong, and Simon’s father told him nothing of their prewar Polish heritage. Both a little lost in life before friends drop these revelations on them, Nadia and Simon find meaning and direction as they search out the truth of their histories.
The Jewish Independent interviewed Ravvin, who lives in Montreal, about his novel, which is available for purchase most anywhere. Ravvin said he will be in Vancouver for the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival in February, for readers who would like the chance to speak with him themselves.
Jewish Independent: I was struck by your attention to detail in the history and geography of Vancouver, and I imagine the same with Warsaw and Radzanów, though I wouldn’t know that from personal experience. Have you lived in all these places? If not, from where did you gather your local knowledge?
Norman Ravvin: I came to know Vancouver as a child, traveling from Calgary with my family to visit my mother’s mother, who lived on Willow Street. Those trips and her presence in the city contributed to my coming back to study at UBC, where my dad went for a few years in the wartime before enlisting in the Navy. I did my undergrad degree and a one-year MA in the English department.
So, I lived in the city, altogether, only about six years. I lived at UBC, then on the West Side, then in the West End, which I came to think of as “my neighbourhood.” Having left in the mid-80s, with family still there, I continued to come back and never really let go of it as “home,” or maybe a “second home.” We tend to spend two or three weeks in the city in the summer each year. My background knowledge of the city then is also connected with my mom’s youth in the city, my dad’s time there in the wartime, and my grandmother’s life in the city.
Radzanów requires a longer answer. It is my ancestral place on my mother’s side. I first visited it in 1999. I have traveled to Poland seven or eight times since then, making three follow-up trips to Radzanów. I went with different guides in each case, so some of the visits were more revealing than others. In a few cases, standing in the village square, we ended up talking to locals and, in one case, sitting for a beer in a local kufelek, or little beer hall. Going with Poles is key: you cannot access the locals or understand the scene or get a feeling for things otherwise. I met people who remembered my family. I was shown the interior of the intact synagogue building.
More recently, I was back as part of an event organized through a high school class and teacher from a larger nearby place called Mława. The students and their teacher took part in a program that Polish schools follow, called To Bring Memory Back. In their case, they held an event to “open” the synagogue – which took place in the village community centre, since the synagogue is a hollow shell – hoping to raise interest and funds to have the building renewed in some way.
As you’d expect, I added great amounts of reading and research to these visits, in order to try to understand Radzanów from a contemporary as well as historical perspective. I did not want to make up things on this front. The scenes with a film crew are imagined, but a film on the wartime was in fact filmed in the Radzanów square, a kind of lucky coincidence for me. I looked at how that film looked. And research into the Germans’ activities in the area is quite developed, since there was an SS headquarters in the nearby town of Ciechanów. I have not had the guts or the opportunity to live in Radzanów. That aspect of the book is built from all the other related work and research and visits.
JI: In a similar vein, your references to music seem from an insider’s view. What instruments, if any, do you or have you played?
NR: I play the guitar. My son is a first-rate musician, which I am not. So, music is a very established fact in our home life. I am interested in things that overlap between Jewish and Polish identity and, certainly, along with food, music was an area of shared culture and knowledge before the war. Aspects of this inhabit the realm of cliché in contemporary “world music” culture. Klezmer, as it was played before the war, and its nearness to other Polish folk music, is really a kind of untapped source of possible nearness between the two groups. So my character, Nadia, almost inadvertently stumbles into this territory. She finds her way to Eastern European music and is drawn, without her meaning it to happen, to Poland.
JI: The Night Jew, Gentle Jew, Dulcimer Girl, Typewriter Girl … could you talk a bit about these “labels” that appear in the novel? Are they to evoke an archetype, a uniqueness or something else?
NR: This is a challenging query, which goes to the matter of how this book changed over time, through different drafts, and also points to other key aspects of the book.
For a long time it had the title The Dulcimer Girl, which is one of Nadia’s alter egos once she arrives in Poland. And the instrument itself, key to early klezmer, in its Polish guise, as a hammered instrument, was something I thought of as a talismanic object, which evoked the locale, the culture of Jews and Poles in another time.
The Typewriter Girl was also an early title that fell by the wayside, and relates to the other main female character, Ania. She is “the Typewriter Girl” by way of her work for a Polish government bureaucratic special office, which is tasked with investigating the files kept on people during the communist era. Understanding the typewriters used on each file is a way of verifying the files or revealing fraudulence.
The typewriter, like other technologies in the book – cars, books, recorded music – is evocative of a time when things worked in a way that they no longer do. So, the dulcimer and the typewriter, even hardcover books, are surely objects of nostalgic and loveable possibilities.
The Night Jew is central to the novel’s sense of Poland being haunted by the Jews murdered in the wartime. One can spend time in Poland and either look for these Night Jews or, as I sometimes feel, be one. There are plenty of real Jews in Poland today. But the Night Jew must be someone from another world altogether.
The Gentle Jew is in fact a particular nickname for a key figure in the narrative. He is an early ’60s denizen of West Cordova Street.
JI: There are many parallels in the lives of Simon and Nadia – a father’s secrets, their love of walking, etc. – and their lives do overlap, of course, but what inspired you to connect these disparate stories?
NR: Some of these parallels develop intentionally, but then others work themselves out as a book goes through drafts. Certainly, you’re right, walking is a returning motif. Nadia does seem to walk cities after the example of her father, as if she walks to be like him when she cannot know him.
The secrets of fathers: I guess, in this book, one of the premises is that ancestral stories, which go untold, can irrupt without warning. So, in the case of the younger characters in Canada, Simon and Nadia, they share this predicament, and their own lives are changed by the irruptions when they finally happen. It is satisfying when these kinds of patterns develop almost without meaning them to. This is where writing can be a bit like making music, where refrains, verse and chorus structure allow for such catchy and satisfying effects – a rhyming of sound and idea.
JI: If there is anything else you’d like to add, please do.
NR: I guess it’s important to say that I’ve returned to Vancouver in fiction for another try at it. My second novel, Lola by Night, was a Vancouver book. And, in The Girl Who Stole Everything, I felt strongly about doing things with the city that others hadn’t. I’m a walker in Vancouver, whenever I can be, so that element, which you ask about, is motivated by my own appreciation of what different parts of the city have to offer. When I walk, I do think of what’s changed since my last visit, so it may be that writing about a place can be well done from afar, as long as you keep it close enough and periodically in view. It’s interesting to have a Vancouver book come out in Montreal, where the West Coast is a kind of terra incognita.