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Angel Wagenstein, an octogenarian screenwriter from Bulgaria who recently turned to writing novels, first gained attention in the English-speaking world with his 2007 novel Farewell, Shanghai, a fascinating ensemble piece about German and Austrian Jews fleeing Nazism for the relative safety of China. Thanks once again to translators Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova, English-language readers have access again to this gifted storyteller. With Isaac’s Torah, Wagenstein resurrects a Jewish literary archetype—the virtuous “fool”—yet endows the character with sagacity instead of saintliness; seemingly dim-witted but inwardly shrewd, Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld often finds that the only way to survive danger is to play the idiot. Armed with Yiddish lore and the wide-ranging advice of a colorful brother-in-law who is alternately a rabbi and an atheist, this simple tailor’s son from the shtetl of Kolodetz tries to navigate a course through the great terrors of his age. Indeed, despite Isaac’s general indifference to the world, the vicissitudes of the 20th century turn his life upside down: “I wasn’t very interested in politics, while politics itself was showing a growing interest in me.” Within the space of a few decades, Kolodetz passes from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Poland to the Soviet Union to Nazi Germany and back to the Soviet Union. Isaac’s own relocation to Vienna marks the conclusion of a harrowing odyssey, as the subtitle puts it, “through two world wars, three concentration camps and five motherlands.” Along the way, he experiences the “all-devouring and blood-thirsty Moloch” that is the Soviet justice system as well as Germany’s descent into barbarism. In a Nazi concentration camp not designed for extermination, extreme privation and an outbreak of typhoid ensure that, “Unlike the outside world, where people live in communities but die each for himself, here we were dying communally, but surviving each for himself.” Wagenstein has an unfortunate propensity for conspiracy-mongering—in Farewell, Shanghai, President Roosevelt has foreknowledge of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, wealthy Baghdadi Jews in ’30s China strike business deals with Nazis, and unspecified American Jewish organizations oppose granting asylum to German Jewish refugees in 1939. In Isaac’s Torah, he offers a bizarre reading of the Nazi phenomenon, referring to unnamed “benefactors” who built up Hitler only to turn on him and provoke World War II when he stopped obeying them. The theory is baseless, as is Wagenstein’s concomitant charge that these imaginary puppet-masters bear ultimate responsibility for the war’s “fifty million dead.” Yet such disturbing notions aside, Wagenstein demonstrates an impressive command of modern European history, equally comfortable discussing the ethnic composition of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazi treatment of Jews and Poles, and conditions in Soviet labor camps. He also succeeds in the delicate matter of injecting humor into Isaac’s Torah without trivializing the suffering of victims of Nazi genocide or Soviet persecution. One line, in fact, provides an uplifting example of how one can overcome trauma precisely by refusing to forget it. When an exasperated Viennese newsagent chides a Jewish customer for requesting the Nazi Völkischer Beobachter every morning, thereby obliging the newsagent to reiterate that the newspaper ceased publication with the end of the war, the customer replies: “I know, my dear sir, I know. But it’s so nice to start the day with good news!”