Today’s guest, Erma Odrach, has now completed a translation of her father’s novel, Wave of Terror, and has begun work on another, tentatively titled On the Road.
Shelagh: Erma, please give us a little information about yourself and your work.
Erma: I am a writer/ translator living in Toronto, Canada. At present I am focusing my attention on translating the works of my father, Theodore Odrach (1912-1964). My father wrote novels and short stories in the Ukrainian language, and his works were published in Buenos Aires, New York and Toronto. Wave of Terror, recently published by Academy Chicago Publishers, is his first novel to appear in English.
Shelagh: What is Wave of Terror about?
Erma: Well, I think one has to take a brief look at my father’s life to really understand what Wave of Terror is about. My father was born in Belarus (then a part of Czarist Russia), and in 1939 he became caught up in Stalin’s world. Studying at the university in Vilnius and watching the Soviet tanks roll in, he decided to head south, back to his native Belarus (by then a part of eastern Poland). Securing a teaching position just outside the town of Pinsk, it is really during this time that Wave of Terror began to take root. There he witnessed first-hand unspeakable atrocities committed by the Soviet regime, where innocent men, women and children were routinely persecuted, tortured and slain. Deemed an “enemy of the people” himself, my father became a man on the run, changing his name from Sholomitsky to Odrach in the hopes of protecting the family he left behind. Eventually, my father managed to escape into Slovakia by way of the Carpathian Mountains. After roaming around Europe, marrying, and living in Manchester, England for 5 years, in 1953, together with my mother, he settled in Toronto Canada.
Wave of Terror is about the Red Army invasion of Belarus in 1939, as seen through the eyes of Ivan Kulik, a young schoolteacher. People are randomly deported to the gulags, tortured in Zovty Prison, or murdered. It loosely follows the life of my father, and many of the events are eye-witness accounts. But the novel is not all doom and gloom. There’s a fair amount of humor (though dark), and at some level it’s also a love story, as Ivan has eyes for Marusia, a green-eyed, whimsical young woman.
Shelagh: When Wave of Terror was started, what goals did your father want to accomplish? Is there a message he wanted readers to grasp?
Erma: When my father wrote Wave of Terror, he meant it as an exposé on Soviet oppression. He wanted to make known the horrors in his part of the world during that awful time. But he ended up an expatriate writer living in Canada, and, unfortunately, his readership was limited to a very small number of Ukrainian-speaking immigrants. In addition, his books were banned in the Soviet Union. So, as you can understand, as a writer, he became literally trapped within his own language. Completely cut off from the English reading public around him, he lived his life in relative obscurity and his work remained forever in limbo. My father knew his only way to be heard was through translation. But during his lifetime that was a very remote possibility.
Shelagh: Wave of Terror was written in the early sixties. It’s now 2009. Where has the book been for almost fifty years?
Erma: Actually, it was published posthumously in Ukrainian in Toronto in 1972. My father barely finished it before his death and he left numerous loose ends. Since 1972 it’s been floating around a few places here and there, however, mostly it’s been sitting on the bookshelf in my living room, but not forgotten, at least not by me. When I started translating it a number of years ago, I sent excerpts to literary magazines as a trial, and reception was great. A chapter appeared in Mobius: The Journal of Social Change in Madison, WI and another in Flipside (California Univ. of Penn). In 2008 the novel got picked up by Academy Chicago Publishers.
Shelagh: How did your father develop his characters and setting?
Erma: As far as setting is concerned, history provided that for him; he found himself thrust in the heart of WWII, and there was drama at every turn. He was a keen observer of people and events. Most of his characters are actual, though fictionalized to some extent. For example, Dounia, who is an oversized, oversexed fishmonger, in reality sold trinkets in the marketplace and was later promoted by the regime to schoolteacher, even though she was illiterate. My father loved people, he loved studying them and interpreting them. His prose style is spare but quite controlled with touches of irony and humor thrown in for good measure. Wave of Terror could easily be read as a document to his turbulent heritage.
Shelagh: Who is the most unusual or most likeable character?
Erma: The book is really filled with ordinary people living through extraordinary times. Ivan Kulik, Headmaster of School Number 7, is the eyes, ears and heart of the novel, and it is through him that the reader experiences and witnesses much of everything that is happening. Ivan Kulik in many ways could be seen as the author himself, as both are caught in a world turned upside down and both have to learn the politics of survival. Fishmonger Dounia, however, remains my favorite character because she proves the most resourceful and most equipped to deal with all that comes her way: she is the ultimate “new Soviet woman”. But her character is also functional in that it provides much-needed comic relief. My father loved to observe women as much as men. In the introduction to Wave of Terror T.F. Rigelhof writes:
“Odrach has much to tell us that hasn’t been reported in this way by anyone else about how the coming of the Soviets affected the sexual identities of women along the outer edges of the USSR …”
Shelagh: Share the best review (or portion) that Theodore Odrach had.
Erma: The best one came from the Times Literary Supplement:
Theodore Odrach is that rare thing, a political novelist who is also an artist of the first rank.
For my father, politics and writing always went hand in hand. He needed to write about politics but he also wanted his words to endure. Had he read all the wonderful reviews written about Wave of Terror thus far, and after so many years, he would have been truly overwhelmed.
This is a review of the translated version:
The novel begins with the Red Army invasion of Belarus in 1939. Ivan Kulik is the newly appointed headmaster of School Number 7 in Hlaby, a rural village in the Pinsk marshes. Through Ivan’s eyes, the reader experiences the impact and effect of Stalinist domination, including the capricious seemingly random acts of cruelty by those in power. Ivan struggles to make sense of this new world and of his personal life.
This is a powerful novel: both the setting and the characters make it so. Mr Odrach’s characters are human rather than suprahuman or subhuman with all of humanity’s concomitant strengths and weaknesses. During the story, I could feel individual hope being extinguished as grinding reality overcame fragile optimism. The changes wrought on individual and community life by the emergence of the Belarusian Soviet Social Republic make very uncomfortable reading. In many cases, authority was vested in individuals whose capacity to misuse such power was only exceeded by their inability to realise the dehumanising effects extended to them as well as to their victims. It would be easy to illustrate this by the use of good and bad stereotypes but Mr Odrach manages to avoid doing this.
At the end of this novel, I wanted more. I would like to think that the story of Ivan was the story of Mr Ordrach himself and that he managed to escape from an uncertain place to make a better life for himself. Whether this is true or not, this is a novel that will no doubt remain with me for a very long time.
I thank Ms Odrach for bringing this novel to life by interpreting her father’s work into English and pursuing publication. I hope to read more of Mr Odrach’s writing.
Shelagh: Did your father live to see you translate at least some of his works?
Erma: No, because he died in 1964 when I was a child. I never really knew him. And Ukrainian was and still is a difficult language for me. It wasn’t until my late 20’s that I started tackling his books. Using a Ukrainian-English dictionary, I literally had to look up every second word, and still it sometimes didn’t make sense. Luckily, my mother knew his work inside out because he had read her all his manuscripts. In short, it was a very laborious process. And somehow slowly but surely his pages started to come to life — there were people living inside them, there were great panoramas, history was in the making.
Shelagh: What are your current projects?
Erma: I’m working on more of my father’s books – short stories and novels. I’m just finishing up a novel that takes place right after the Yalta Conference, when Eastern Europe is being handed over to Stalin. There are feelings of betrayal and abandonment among the characters. Another moment in history is captured.
Also, on another note, I’m happy to say with the fall of communism, my father’s books are finding their way into Ukraine and Belarus, and there is growing interest in his life and works. I have also secured a publisher in Ukraine, and they are set on reissuing all his works there.
Shelagh: Where can folks learn more about Theodore Odrach and Wave of Terror?
Erma: You can learn more about my father at:
Leave a comment and you could win a FREE copy of this wonderful book!