The nearer to Lublin, the further away

The nearer to Lublin, the further away

For the JC February 2024

Out of interest, I Googled how long it might take to walk the 90 plus kilometres from the Polish town of Mezritsh to the once important Jewish centre of Lublin. Twenty or so hours, was the answer.

For Manya Wilkinson’s hapless trio of young boys trying to make the same journey, it takes days, possibly even weeks. And at the end of this delicious little book, we are not even sure whether Lublin was an achievable goal or just a metaphor for a Jewish journey that is fraught with aggravation — and many, many, terrible old jokes.

We are in Poland of 1907 and our heroes, aged 14 or so, are off on an adventure, to sell brushes of every type and size and bristle length, in the market town of Lublin. For shtetl boys such as Elya, and cousins Ziv and Kiva, Lublin has acquired an almost mythical reputation. In Lublin, they tell each other, there will be gold and fame and riches, people will fight each other to buy their brushes, and they will sleep on the softest of pillows and eat the finest of foods.

First, however, they have to get there. Elya has been provided with a map which already sounds suspect: the road to Lublin, according to this map, features such unlikely landmarks as the Village of Lakes, the Village of Girls, Prune Town, home of divine flaky pastries, and even the scary-sounding Russian Town — best avoided by somewhat wimpish Jewish lads.

Manya Wilkinson spares no-one’s blushes as she weaves her tales of “fumes from the tanneries, smoke, ash, cinders, wood shavings, winged insects, small birds, flying cats, prayers, curses and avenging visions of Adoshem”. Every call of nature is turned in to a furtive hopping on one foot as trousers and underwear get in the way; shoes are always unsuitable, blister and bruises abound, and the jokes get worse the nearer (or further) we get to Lublin.

Between metaphorical cries of “are we nearly there yet?”, Wilkinson, a New Yorker who teaches prose workshops in Newcastle, drops in tantalising hints of the darkening world to come — the Holocaust, inevitably, not even thought of in Russian Town of 1907.

We watch a rabbi sign a marriage contract with a quill; then Wilkinson tells us: “A crude version of the ballpoint pen, used only to mark rough surfaces such as animal hides, is currently available in Mezritsh. But the smooth-writing ballpoint, invented in 1938 by Laszlo Biro, will not arrive in Poland until 1942, which will be too late for most Mezritshers.”

Elya does his best to make the boys (and we readers) laugh with his seemingly endless store of jokes. “Why did the chicken go to the seance?” he asks. “To get to the other side.” Ziv, unfortunately, doesn’t get it.

I felt Elya’s pain: he is a stand-up comic in a show with a deaf audience. He tries another: “Have you heard about the mathematician who was afraid of negative numbers? He’d stop at nothing to avoid them.” Ka-boom! Elya is here all week. Ziv and Kiva, not so much.

Lublin by Manya Wilkinson is published by And Other Stories at £14.99 on February 5 2024

  • 13 February, 2024