A life in ashes

The English translation of Ruby Namdar’s Sapir Prize-winning first novel is a bewildering tale of modern and biblical life

December 13, 2017 18:44
4 minute read.
RUBY NAMDAR, who was born in Jerusalem but lives in New York, gives his descriptions of the city a p

RUBY NAMDAR, who was born in Jerusalem but lives in New York, gives his descriptions of the city a piercing authenticity. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 After a series of books by American Jews on Israelis and life in Israel, it only makes sense that the reverse would be soon to come. But Ruby Namdar’s The Ruined House cannot be boxed into simply being a novel written by an Israeli about American Jewry.

For starters, Namdar, a Jerusalem native born to Iranian refugees, has lived much of his life in New York, since first moving there in 1986, lending a sharp authenticity to his character’s meanderings from the Upper West Side down to the West Village.

The Ruined House is also a novel unlike anything I’ve ever read, weaving together the narrative story line of one Professor Andrew Cohen with horrifying dreams, apocalyptic visions and even a retelling – via talmudically-designed pages – of the obligations of the High Priest on Yom Kippur.

The book was rendered into English by veteran translator Hillel Halkin, who has also worked his magic on the stylings of Amos Oz, S.Y. Agnon and A.B.

Yehoshua. The original Hebrew work, Namdar’s second book and his first novel, won the prestigious Sapir Prize in 2014.

At its heart, The Ruined House tells the story of Cohen, a nominal Reform Jew living in New York City and working as a professor of comparative cultures at New York University. He is a vain, self-important man, having remade himself a decade earlier when he divorced his wife, left his two daughters and moved to an elegant apartment on the Upper West Side before acquiring a new girlfriend half his age.

Each chapter in the book is titled with both the English and Hebrew dates, spanning a year around 2001, and cataloguing the day-to-day activities in Cohen’s life and the increasingly bizarre, graphic and often Temple-themed visions he encounters.

“The whole episode didn’t last long – no more than a moment or two,” Namdar writes early on in the book. “The skies shut and the ascending ladder of light slowly faded. A final glitter of gold flickered in the misty distance, then all reverted to its former state, as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.”

It can’t just be the former New Yorker in me that felt the impending presence of 9/11, nor the fact that the book starts in September 2000 and stretches more than 500 pages into the future.

The Ruined House of the title seems to be not just Cohen’s disrupted family life, but his growing connection to the destroyed Jewish Temple and eventually, but marginally, the Twin Towers.

Namdar’s writing is both inventive and exhausting, at times so over the top as to become irritating, and at others elegantly pared down. The narrative is interjected with seemingly unrelated visions and some truly horrific nightmares that left me cringing, as well as the faux-talmudic tales with very real commentaries surrounding them.

As a frequent attendee at bar mitzva parties in 2001, Namdar was really spot-on as he describes Cohen and his daughter, Rachel, attending a celebration for an Orthodox second cousin.

“A large color photograph of the bar mitzva boy stood on an easel at the entrance of the synagogue, welcoming the guests in their tuxedos and evening gowns... the quantities of food were overwhelming. Servers in white chef’s hats stood by steaming-hot cuts of meat set on wooden trenchers, carving portions and carefully placing them on the outstretched plates. Entire salmons lay on their sides, garnished with thin slices of cucumber. Oily Chinese stirfry glittered in large woks. A sushi chef, who, too, was Chinese, swiftly rolled and cut his fare, trying hard to keep up with the demand for the new and exotic delicacy, only recently discovered by American gourmand wannabees. There was even a kosher hot-dog stand for the children, the bar mitzva boy’s cousins and schoolmates.”

While Namdar’s writing often paints a vividly real scene, he can also be hopelessly histrionic and otherworldly. Some of the episodes in Cohen’s life seem like disconnected, overwrought moments that don’t quite lead the reader toward any conclusion; from his curiosity at reality TV plastic surgery makeovers to his obsessive spotting of an Israeli neighbor at sites around New York City.

Cohen is famed for his dinner parties, and his exacting treatment of meat, in a manner that Namdar explores to death.

“Andrew stares at the cut as though to penetrate its inner being; then, suddenly, he puts down his glass and attacks the meat with sharp, sweeping movements, cutting it, spearing it, sprinkling it with pepper and coarse salt, beating the spices into it, and lovingly massaging it with olive oil and seasoning,” Namdar writes. After Cohen flings it into a skillet, “The fire sputters with glee. The seared flesh cries out in pain, writhing in the skillet as though struggling to escape while Andrew stands over it with merciless concentration, pinning it to its fiery bed of torture with a double-pronged fork. The searing sound begins to fade, the meat surrenders to the flame.

Turned on its other side, it rages and resists again, but its defiance is shortlived, and its soul, fleeing the infernal flames, withdraws to its interior, turning into a hot, heavy, blood-red essence that oozes onto the serving tray.”

The thoughtful reader will spend the book’s 500 pages looking for insight into both Namdar and Cohen and wondering how the frightening visions of the Temple are fueling the protagonist’s disturbing midlife crisis. The author aims incredibly high, but may leave readers with little more than a sense of bewilderment. 

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