French-language Quebec Novel Wins Top J.I. Segal Award

Nov. 9, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—A French-language historical novel by a well-known Quebec author that captures the political ferment during the Depression in Montreal’s working-class Mile End district is the winner of the top prize of the Jacob Isaac Segal Awards, sponsored by the Jewish Public Library (JPL).

Le Mammouth by Pierre Samson, published by Héliotrope last year, is based on a forgotten actual event: The fatal police shooting in the back of Nikita Zynchuck, a Ukrainian immigrant labourer, in March 1933.

PIerre Samson

The police officer who delivered the fatal bullets – himself the son of Italian immigrants – is never brought to justice, a scandal that rallied trade unionists and civil rights defenders across ethnic, linguistic and religious lines.

The incident was illustrative of the authorities’ fear of growing communist sentiment, especially in immigrant communities, a movement in which Jews were predominant, while less attention was paid to fascist sympathies.

Samson weaves into the fictional narrative such real-life Jewish figures as labour organizer Fred Rose, the first Communist Party candidate elected to Parliament, and lawyer Michael Garber, later president of Canadian Jewish Congress, who led the outcry against the killing of Zynchuck, nicknamed le mammouth because of his size.

Le Mammouth was chosen the inaugural Best Quebec Book on a Jewish Theme, which carries a $5,000 prize, by an independent jury. The four members hailed Samson for “portray(ing) the Jewish community, which occupies a prominent place in this world of immigrants in the first decades of 20th century, with admirable topographical and psychological precision, while being sensitive to the internal tensions that divide it and the relationships it maintains with the francophone community and the other groups of recently arrived immigrants.”

The jurors, all writers, were literary critic Alberto Manguel, former director of the National Library of Argentina; University of Montreal French literature professor Catherine Mavrikakis; philosopher and Columbia University professor Emmanuel Kattan; and Adam Gollner Leith, former editor of Vice magazine.

Le Mammouth was a finalist for this year’s Grand Prix du Livre de Montréal.

The other 2020 Segal Award winners are Boris Sandler, former editor-in-chief of the Yiddish edition of the Forward, for Antiques from My Travel Bag (published by Yiddish Branzhe), selected for the $1,000 Dr. Hirsh and Dvorah Rosenfeld Award for Yiddish Literature; and, sharing the Rosa and David Finestone z”l Award for Best Translation of a Book on a Jewish Theme, also worth $1,000, are Goldie Morgentaler, and, jointly, Lori Saint-Martin and Paul Gagné.

Morgentaler, a University of Lethbridge English professor, translated from the Yiddish her late mother Chava Rosenfarb’s Confessions of a Yiddish Writer and Other Essays.

This collection of non-fiction by Polish-born Rosenfarb (1923-2011) covers a variety of subjects, including her experiences during the Holocaust, reminiscences about Yiddish writers she knew in postwar Montreal, where she lived for many years, and travel writings, especially on Australia, a part-time home. Rosenfarb is best-known for her trilogy novel set in the Lodz ghetto, The Tree of Life.

Saint-Martin and Gagné are cited for their translation into French of Canadian author Gary Barwin’s novel Yiddish for Pirates. The translation was published as Le Yiddish à l’usage des pirates by Éditions du Boréal.

The Segal Awards will be presented at a virtual ceremony on Nov. 12 at 7:30 p.m., when Samson, two of whose earlier novels were nominated for Governor General’s Awards, will be interviewed.

Reservations may be made at https://bit.ly/37pnEjS.

JPL executive director Michael Crelinsten said the introduction of the Quebec book category by the Segal Awards, now in their 52nd year, reflects the JPL’s “double, but intertwined, mission of being both Jewish and public. With the new format, the JPL also highlights the contribution of Jewish culture to a richly diverse contemporary Quebec.”

On Nov. 19 at 7:30 p.m. as part of Jewish Book Month, the JPL presents an online lecture by Chilean-born writer Isabel Allende on “Write What Shall Not Be Forgotten: A Journey into Memory and Soul.”