Sunday, July 24, 2011

Svetlana's Elephants

After a very tasty brunch at Ristorante Asselina at the Hotel Gansevoort Park Avenue, I went on a bit of an experimental journey to Soho. Mapless and therefore clueless, I boarded the N train Downtown and got out at Prince Street.

Now fortunately Prince Street is a block from Houston (entirely where I wanted to be) but then I walked in the wrong direction for three blocks - in high heels and in extreme heat. Not pleasant. Spinning myself around, I got on the right track but ultimately realised Houston is a very looong street, and I was at least 8 blocks out of my way. I could feel the blisters forming on the underside of my toes; it was all very gross.

With confirmation from a gaggle of Soho firefighters that I was indeed headed the right way, I almost belly-flopped into the cool and welcoming arms of S.O.Bs, a neat little bar/brunch venue with a live band playing mellow Latin American tunes. I only wanted to cool off and have some icy cranberry juice & soda, but the live music was an added bonus and I made a mental note to come back there another time.

A little before 1pm I rounded the corner and headed into Film Forum, the premier independent movie house in New York City. I was cashing in a Groupon certificate I had bought (naturally) for a year-long membership to the cinema. When I was in Chicago I was a real devotee of The Gene Siskel Film Center, and I figured that Film Forum seemed to be NYC's equivalent. Film Forum has been around since the 1970s and though the screening roster is not large, it offers a lovely collection of American and foreign films, documentaries and even throwbacks the golden oldies.

Today I went to see "The Woman With The Five Elephants", the story of 87-year old Svetlana Geier who has translated the five major works of Dostoyevsky from Russian into German. She is widely considered the most masterful translator of these works in the world. Screened in German with English subtitles, the film tells the story of Svetlana's life and her family, from growing up in the Ukraine and then as a young girl being forced (by wartime circumstances) to move to Germany and work for the SS as a translator. As time rolled on, Svetlana raised a beautiful family in Germany and honed her linguistic crafts. The film follows Svetlana as she returns to the Ukraine for the first time in 65 years, to deliver a series of readings and lectures about the art of translating.

I know a lot of people would yawn and roll their eyeballs at a movie like this, but I really liked it (or maybe Svetlana just reminded me a little too much of my own Granny). To see her wispy white hair, and her wrinkled hands smoothing her beautifully hand-made lace tablecloths, it was just really lovely. Her mind as sharp as a tack, Svetlana speaks fondly of friends she has made over the years, admiring them for being well-read, articulate and punctual. It was interesting to hear her speak about making a home for herself in Germany, knowing now (and even then) what the Nazis had done to people she cared about back in the Ukraine. Having worked for the SS, she only spoke of the kindnesses her employers had shown her. She found it hard to reconcile the bosses and colleagues she remembered with the atrocities that the regime had committed. I just thought that was a really astute and honest observation, not to mention a point of view I'd never considered before.

Having scratched my language and literature itches, I emerged into the hot sun and undertook more experimental train travel home. Remind me never again to take the train to Penn Station on a Sunday - I keep forgetting that people, lots and lots of them, still like to shop at Macy's. Ugh!