`FROM the Old Marketplace'' is the first and only book of Joseph Buloff, an actor in the Yiddish theater, known to English-speaking audiences for his performances in ``The Price,'' ``My Sister Eileen,'' and ``Oklahoma,'' where he originated the role of the Peddler. He grew up in Vilnius in the early years of this century, became an actor in the Yiddish theater in Warsaw and Bucharest, and continued to appear on the Yiddish stage in America. To say that this mesmerizing recollection of a vanished world reads like a novel is a severe understatement. Although it is apparently the true story of its author's boyhood and youth in Vilnius, nothing in it happens that does not contribute to the momentum of its storyline and the development of its themes. Much that does happen has the fantastic feel of a Chagall painting.
It begins in the old marketplace, a collection of ramshackle stands, where grown-ups congregate near the communal firepot by the garbage bin and children set up a mock market of their own, trading rags for buttons. Our hero's career as a tradesman is cut short when he reminds some of his ``customers'' of some buttons they owe him from before. ```There never was such a thing as the day before yesterday!''' they retort.
Yosik, however, is cursed - or blessed - with a strong memory and an even stronger imagination. He's called a ``charlatan,'' a ``conniving trickster,'' and he accepts these labels himself.
But his chief ``connivance'' is his incredible credulity. When he hears the story of Columbus, he sets sail on the flooded streets in the very next rainstorm in hopes of being the new Columbus. When his Christian friend shows him a picture book of heaven and its angels, Yosik promptly agrees to join him in a suicide pact to reach this wonderful place.
The world in which Yosik lives is, if anything, stranger than his wildest fantasies. His ne'er-do-well father runs off to America to return - lo-and-behold - a wealthy man. Another of Yosik's childhood friends, the village fool, picks up a fiddle and becomes ``a second Paganini.'' Yosik himself displays a remarkable gift for captivating audiences with his own dramatic recitals.
Former friends are suddenly transformed to potential enemies by the pervasive virus of anti-Semitism. And beyond the Vilnius marketplace, there's the larger world and its long history, which the local historian - a thin, intellectual youth known as Barve's Son - expounds to the astonished neighborhood. Their own marketplace has seen Slavonic, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian rule: ``Left to the tender mercies of their conquerors, the townspeople were contemptuous of each other, secretly envious and resentful of the Russians; but they achieved a splendid unity in a deep and frank hatred of the Jews.''3
``From the Old Marketplace'' follows Yosik's adventures from his infancy to his early manhood in the months following the Russian Revolution and the end of World War I. The characters, from Yosik's gentle, yet resourceful mother, Sarah, to his neurotic schoolteacher, Dalski, are portrayed with a vividness reminiscent of Dickens and other 19th-century novelists, while the bizarre situations in which people find themselves are presented with the deadpan irony that haunts so many novels of our own unbelievable century.
Yet what is perhaps most impressive about this ambitious and exuberant work is that, for all its forays into the fantastic realm of childhood fancies and the fearful arenas of pogroms, upheaval, and war, it remains a tightly written narrative, never self-indulgent or sprawling into formlessness, as compelling and dramatic as a traveler's tale told on a winter's night.