Verdict: In this well-done series of short stories, Joseph Rotenberg displays that rare skill of being able to write convincingly in first and third person and avoids the temptation of showing off such skill to the detriment of the stories; instead the reader benefits from his examining ethnic identity from a variety of angles.
One of the more challenging aspects of being a novelist involves finding the right type of narration. Third-person allows the writer to cover events not just from the protagonist’s perspective, but also from the other characters’ as well. Hence, readers are granted a wide scope of what is happening in the novel. Such an approach does have pitfalls, however. Third person narration is not exactly hospitable to inner monologues, and can potentially, even with the writer signaling the reader about the shift to thought via italics, be a difficult task.
Long considered easier to manage, first-person narration does seamlessly allow in the inner thoughts of the narrator. But such narration can be limiting—we only see what the narrator sees. And what if the narrator, as is the trend today, is unreliable? The reader can thus lose their moorings. In TIMELESS TRAVELS, a well-done series of stories told from multiple points of view, author Joseph Rotenberg pulls off both types of narration excellently. We are given a first person account, as well as third, and, most remarkably, Rotenberg is able to get into the mindset of a child narrator.
As with many identity politics writers, the insertion of ethnicity into the stories can come off as heavy-handed, which slows down the story and tries the reader’s patience if they are not of the same ethnicity. Rotenberg is relatively light on his Jewishness, and as a result, the reader is not hit over the head with this theme. Even in a story dealing with Russian repressive policies toward their Jewish citizens, all of the characters debating never lose their cool. Rotenberg even has a remarkable approach to Hitler and Stalin, when one of the debaters “flips” or inserts them into the opposite countries. Characterizing the Russians as fostering an impression of being “wild men,” “out of control,” the character in actuality declares them to be quite rational, and “deliberate in their actions.” By contrast, the character asserts, Germans “cultivate a reputation of being in control, an educated, intellectual people;” but the reality is that they “have often in the past acted collectively as true ‘wild men’—an angry people who cannot tolerate ‘the other.’”
From there, the character imagines what each country would have been like if Stalin had been the leader of Germany and Hitler Russia:
“It is easy to image Stalin with his controlling temperament using his notably loyal German-Jewish citizens” composed of scientists “to spearhead the German war effort and likely conquer the world.” Hitler, by turns, would have made Stalin’s goal possible, for the former’s “ungoverned passions and hatreds” would result in “wrecking any chances Russia had of victory.”
With that goal achieved, “Stalin might have rewarded his loyal Jewish allies by eliminating them from German society.”
The above example, and quotes, showcases Joseph Rotenberg’s gifts as a writer; he is not afraid to think “out of the box” and use multiple means of narrating such thoughts.
In this well-done series of short stories, Rotenberg displays that rare skill of being able to write convincingly in first and third person and avoids the temptation of showing off such skill to the detriment of the stories; instead the reader benefits from his examining ethnic identity from a variety of angles.
~Ron Capshaw for IndieReader