Review: Bram Presseron Arnold Zable

Tales Wrenched from the Fire

In Acland Street, St Kilda, there is a small blue plaque beside the entrance to a clothing store, where once there stood a cafe called Scheherazade. I walk past it almost every day, this minor curiosity on an ever-changing thoroughfare. The plaque is easy to miss, and few people stop to read its inscription. But for those of us who remember the Babel-like din inside and schnitzels the size of a plate, that name –  Scheherazade – and the names Avram and Masha Zeleznikow draw us back to a tiny pocket of old Europe – lost Europe –  stitched into a seaside suburb in Melbourne at the farthest corner of the earth.

I was only ever taken there as a treat, and almost always by my grandparents. We’d wait for Avram or Masha to point us to a table and then make a show of studying the menu. Not that we needed it. We knew what we were there for. Cabbage rolls. Blintzes. Goulash. And, yes, those schnitzels.

While I ate, my grandparents would regale me with stories of their younger years; of restaurants that served this dish, or relatives who cooked that one. It was never explicitly said, but in their voices and the way they held themselves, I could tell that here, in this city of new beginnings, Scheherazade was home.

At neighbouring tables, I’d see familiar faces. It was a Jewish community hub, as holy as any synagogue. But it was also a local St Kilda institution, its bustling other worldliness perfectly suited to the misfits, struggling artists and local sex workers, who would stop by and be welcomed with the same warmth and generosity of spirit as those who had washed ashore from der alter velt. When the cafe closed, in September 2008, Melbourne lost what had, for fifty years, been one of its most endearing cultural crucibles.

It was that unique Yiddishe tam (Jewish flavour) that Arnold Zable hoped to capture when, on a winter’s night in 1993, he came to Scheherazade. The cafe was celebrating its thirty-fifth birthday, and he intended to write a newspaper feature to mark the occasion. No doubt he had been there many times before; it was a popular gathering place for people from the Bund, the Jewish labour movement in which he and his family were active members. The assignment should have been simple: interview the proprietors, Avram and Masha, speak to a few of the patrons, maybe throw in something about the street and its Middle European cake shops and delis. But, as is the Jewish way, stories are never simple. Stepping back outside, surrounded by the animated chatter of the ‘Jewish parliament’ who gathered on the footpath, Zable knew he was onto something far greater than a newspaper article. And so he returned, time after time, conversation after conversation, borscht after borscht until, eight years later, he published Cafe Scheherazade. It is a novel that to this day remains the finest, most engaging and humane celebration of the Jewish immigrant experience in Australia, but also speaks to something more universal, something timeless, about what it means to belong.

That it is even considered a novel, and not a work of narrative non-fiction, seems pedantic. The cafe was real. Avram and Masha Zeleznikow were real. Their stories, and the stories of other patrons recounted in the book were also real. It is only the decision to make composites of those patrons, to group the many stories Zable recorded by their core commonalities into three more manageable tales of survival, that renders this a novel. Of course, the fictional veil is intentionally thin. Art does not merely imitate life. It is life.

The novel begins with Martin, a journalist, turning up at Scheherazade to profile some of its diners for the weekend paper. He has chosen the cafe because he knows it caters to a certain type: old Europeans, refugees and émigrés, mostly Jewish, wanting a taste of the world they left behind. They are ‘ageing men, burdened with memories that will never be erased’. Men who lost entire families, and now ‘lived in one-bedroom flats, boarding houses, single rooms’. Men, that is, with stories. And so we meet the ‘belligerent’ Laizer Bailer, ‘streetwise’ Yossel Bartnowski and the ‘refined’ Zalman Grintraum. And we meet Avram and Masha Zeleznikow, the former partisan and his great love, who both had big dreams – him of being a writer, her a doctor – but for whom fate had other plans.

As one night rolls into the next, Martin sits in Scheherazade and listens, giving himself over to the tide of stories that ebb and flow like the waters of the nearby bay. Each tale begets another, shooting off in unexpected directions, prone to wistful asides, flashes of bravado, disagreement and correction, even one-upmanship. Entire lives unfold in beautifully hewn passages of longing, of loss, of courage, and of luck, good and bad. Martin understands that his is a sacred undertaking:

I listen. And I record. Driven by the knowledge that the old men are moving on, nearing the end of their tumultuous lives; driven by a sense that it would be a tragic betrayal if their stories disappeared without a trace.

He is, of course, right. The stories Martin is hearing capture the survivor community at its historical tipping point. Time had finally set about claiming the lives these people had long ago wrenched from the fire. It is worth noting that the start of Zable’s research for Cafe Scheherazade roughly coincided with the establishment of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation as well as the proliferation of ‘Roots’ projects in Jewish schools, where students were encouraged to ask survivor grandparents about their experiences. The imperative to record these stories before they were lost forever was fast becoming urgent.

However, the stories in Cafe Scheherazade are not the ones we usually associate with the Holocaust. They are those ordinarily drowned out by the roaring machine of Nazi barbarity: desperate flights across eastern borders to vast frozen plains and the snapping jaws of Stalin’s gulags; perilous sea passage to the temporary safe haven of Shanghai, where a new community thrived before being caught in the military crossfire; daring escapes into the Polish forests, where resistance flourished. Like Queen Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights, the various survivors tell their stories to fend off their own deaths. To know that they still live. Martin tries to make sense of what he hears, to provide the connective tissue where, as Laizer repeatedly says, he can see ‘only broken lines’.

Cafe Scheherazade comes from the great Jewish storytelling tradition, where people talk over one another with unbridled exuberance to build a somewhat shambolic, but stunning and expansive, narrative edifice. And, in watching the great cacophony of its construction, we witness the transformation of grief and trauma into poetry. That Zable focuses on the tales of these particular survivors should come as little surprise. Cafe Scheherazade represents an early distillation of what would become his life’s project: giving voice to those who are silenced. It is the noble advocacy of a true artist, simple, tenacious and unadorned, deeply rooted in the power of storytelling itself. To him, telling stories is a way to honour history and find meaning in the unpredictability of our lives. It is a way to recognise and validate lived experience. Zable writes as if to say there is common humanity in the stories we tell, so let us listen to one another and try to understand. After all, as Masha observes in the novel, ‘No one has a monopoly over hatred. No one has a monopoly over suffering.’ It is to Zable’s great credit that, in giving voice, he does not deign to speak for the marginalised but, rather, writes to amplify.

Not that his advocacy ends on the page. Zable is tireless in his pursuit of decency, tolerance and humanity in Australia and beyond. Whether on the ground at rallies, or in his former role as president of PEN Australia, or as teacher, mentor and publishing conduit to writers he believes must be heard, he dedicates his whole being to the belief that we, as a country, as citizens of the world, can do better.

A decade after it was first published, Cafe Scheherazade was adapted for the stage by Thérèse Radic and premiered at 45 Downstairs, a small independent theatre space in Melbourne. I was there, sitting in the second row, near the centre. A few seats to my right was Arnold Zable. Directly behind me were Avram and Masha Zeleznikow. It was a remarkable piece of theatre, made all the more so by having its characters in the audience. Throughout the performance, I could hear Avram’s heavy breathing. When it was over, I made a beeline for Zable and introduced myself. Meanwhile, Avram remained seated, receiving friends and admirers, former customers, and those who had simply been swept up in his legend. Masha sat elegantly poised beside him, greeting by name all who stepped forward.

Now they are both gone, I often think back to that night with a bittersweet tinge. For me, it was the beginning of a friendship with the writer who would help me navigate the struggles of my own writing. Over the following years, we would meet regularly – always over food – and lose ourselves in discussions about storytelling, Jewish legends, and the importance of continuing to bear witness. But I also think of Avram and Masha who, that night, watched their younger selves acted out in front of a hundred and twenty spellbound theatregoers. Mostly, I think of Avram’s thick, silver coif and bushy brows, his fiery eyes glistening under the stark house lights. Could it have been that he finally understood that, through Zable’s extraordinary novel and its enduring place in the Australian literary canon, his childhood dream of being a storyteller had been realised?

As Cafe Scheherazade draws to a close, Avram and Masha say that their meeting, their love and their lives were beshert: predestined, fated. It is a term often associated with great loves, this idea that two souls have been chosen from the beginning to find one another and spend their time on earth together. I can’t help but feel that it was also beshert for Zable to find, in this cafe by the sea, the people and stories for this novel. Just as it is beshert that you now hold it in your hands. So, go on. Sit. Have some tea. Maybe a blintz. Or a schnitzel. Just a little, mind you. Save room for some cake. But whatever it is you choose, I urge you to lose yourself in the words, in the stories, in the lives of a generation that might now be all but gone, but who live on in these pages.

This is Bram Presser’s introduction to the Text Classics edition of Cafe Scheherezade, published on 3 March 2020. Details here.