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Biography 24.1 (2001) 288-301

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Eva Hoffman's Double Emigration: Canada as the Site of Exile in Lost in Translation

Sarah Phillips Casteel

Lost in Translation, Eva Hoffman's 1989 account of her family's difficult emigration from Poland to Canada and her own subsequent immigration to the United States, is described in the back cover blurb as "A classically American chronicle of upward mobility and assimilation" (emphasis added). Ignoring the fact that almost a third of Lost in Translation takes place in Canada, critics have also tended to classify the book as American immigrant autobiography. In the critical literature, the Canadian portions of the narrative are discussed as though they were continuous with the American portions, the term "American" applied indiscriminately to either side of the border. 1 Yet Hoffman herself draws a sharp distinction between the Canadian and American periods of her life, as the book's tripartite structure makes clear. The first section of the book, in which Hoffman lovingly reconstructs her postwar childhood in Poland, is entitled "Paradise." The second section, which records the 1959 immigration of Hoffman's Polish-Jewish family to Vancouver, their struggle to establish themselves there, and the profoundly disorienting impact of this displacement on the teenage Hoffman, is entitled "Exile." In the third and final section, entitled "The New World," Hoffman immigrates to the United States to attend Rice University, which is followed by graduate studies at Harvard and a successful professional life in New York. Thus we see that according to Hoffman's schema, Canada and America are not at all continuous; instead, Canada is firmly excluded from the categories of the New World--modernity, success, new beginnings--that will ultimately make the United States a place of possibility for her.

In my view, it is worth attending more closely to Hoffman's distinction between Canada and the United States, not so much by way of attacking the [End Page 288] insensitivity of American literary critics to the Canadian content of the book, but rather for what Hoffman's treatment of Canada adds to our understanding of this much discussed autobiography. Hoffman's treatment of Canada will be examined here from two perspectives. First, her opaque and troubling depiction of Vancouver will prove to be fundamentally bound up with the problem of traumatic memory that haunts her both as an immigrant and as a child of Holocaust survivors. Second, it will become apparent that Hoffman's insistence on the Canada/U.S. division is tied to her search for a narrative structure that can make sense of her past. Hoffman's often perplexing representations of Vancouver register key tensions surrounding the genre of immigrant autobiography and in particular the literature of double emigrations.

Canada And Traumatic Memory In Lost In Translation

Many have commented on the highly idealized quality of Hoffman's portrait of her native Cracow, which is filtered through the nostalgia of her childhood memories, and which rests on a conception of childhood as a state of plenitude. Little notice has been taken, however, of the peculiarities of Hoffman's largely unsympathetic treatment of Vancouver. Hoffman describes Canadian society as profoundly inhospitable; in her view, the rigidity and conformism of 1960s Vancouver made it impossible for the Polish-Canadian community to assimilate, condemning it to an empty mimicry of Canadian social conventions. But perhaps more striking than Hoffman's attacks on the unwelcoming and provincial character of Vancouver is her description of the Canadian physical environment, which she consistently characterizes as a blank, gray, and monolithic space, a "no place" and a "nowhere." From the very first, the Canadian landscape possesses an eerie unreality. The St. Lawrence Seaway which greets Hoffman's arrival in Canada strikes her as "ineffably and utterly different from the watery landscapes" to which she is accustomed (Lost 92). 2 The vocabulary of absolute foreignness, of coldness and isolation, which Hoffman establishes in the passage about the St. Lawrence, continues to be employed in her description of the train ride from Montreal to Vancouver and throughout her portrayal...


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