Lost in translation?

Haim Sabato's third novel is masterful but lacks emotional resonance.

lost in translation (photo credit: )
lost in translation
(photo credit: )
Haim Sabato, the descendant of a long line of rabbis from Aleppo, Syria, has set his third novel in Jerusalem, focusing on the intimate world of protagonist Ezra Siman Tov. The Dawning of the Day: The Story of Ezra Siman Tov revolves around Siman Tov's spiritual quest. With infinite patience, Sabato follows Siman Tov's footsteps, as he wends his way - very slowly - from darkness into the light. Siman Tov, a launderer by trade, is described as "a man of Jerusalem who lived by the labor of his own hands, like those of whom it is said, 'Greater is the man who lives by the sweat of his own brow than the man who fears heaven.'" Sabato painstakingly demonstrates Siman Tov's humble and sincere piety, as seen in his devotion to religious observance and his lifelong sense of his own insignificance. In stark contrast to Siman Tov's humility is the pride and snobbishness of the two pedantic Torah scholars: Siman Tov's brother-in-law, Doctor Yehudah Tawil, and the Reb Moishe Dovid. Their intellectual endeavors are permeated with a false sense of superiority that Sabato renders at once reprehensible and yet comical in its absurdity. Their relationships with Siman Tov are marred by their disdain for him, and unfold in a predictably negative manner. The resolution of this injustice is surprising, as the reader expects these personality traits to be so deeply entrenched as to preclude growth and change. But the characters in Sabato's book seem to function as illustrations of his moral messages: In this case, that there are alternative paths to holiness, rather than one formulaic direction. For this and other reasons, The Dawning of the Day seems best understood as a parable of spiritual redemption. Certainly the title alludes to a spiritual awakening, as does the blind man's regaining of his sight. Furthermore, the story's placement in the spiritual heartland of the Western world, coupled with the de-emphasis of historical and political context, seems to indicate that Sabato's Jerusalem is a metaphor for spirituality. As Madame Sarah, Siman Tov's wife, says, "Jerusalem light does not come from the sun. It is the light of the Divine Presence, and it is impossible to darken it." The novel's major characters are more like archetypes than personalities. This sense of the character-as-symbol arises in large part from Sabato's literary style. There is little direct conversation and no interior monologue. Instead, Sabato uses an omniscient narrator to reveal almost everything about each character. This creates an emotional distance between the reader and the character - the kind of distance that suits the telling of a moral tale. The sense of allegory is amplified by the representation of time as cyclical rather than linear. In spite of the tremendous change that results from Siman Tov's forced retirement, time doesn't seem to move forward for Siman Tov as much as it revolves endlessly around the daily, weekly, and annual ritual observances that he performs. The implication is that the cycle of religious ritual forms the basis of holiness in human life. In this respect, The Dawning of the Day is reminiscent of Michal Govrin's novel, The Name, which is also concerned with the cycle of ritual observance. The cyclical representation of time engenders the expectation of a poetic use of language. However, there was very little of the "language filled with the grace of Jerusalem" that the author promises - the beauty of language that makes Govrin's novel sing. Perhaps something was lost in the translation? Another disappointment was that Sabato presents Siman Tov as a storyteller so accomplished that a great (but unnamed) Jerusalem writer seeks him out to hear his stories, later writing them down. He describes Siman Tov as a simple man who "knew how to tell a tale in a simple style, in the language spoken by the people of Jerusalem in Mahane Yehudah and the Bukharan Quarter." This creates the expectation that Siman Tov will recount many gripping stories throughout the novel. But he tells few stories. Sabato uses a detective novelist's technique for creating suspense: The raising of an issue, the dropping of a question, and the closing of the chapter - having offered no answer, either to Siman Tov or the reader. For example, throughout the book Siman Tov alludes to the great "sin" of his youth, but elaborates on it only in the final pages. Only at the end does Sabato draw together all of the reader's unanswered questions, tying them to Siman Tov's unanswered questions to provide the "remedy" that Siman Tov has been seeking for the greater part of his life. And the answer to Siman Tov's dilemma is - appropriately - one that befits a truly religious soul. Nevertheless, the satisfaction experienced at the end was purely intellectual. While Sabato's ability to sustain suspense throughout the novel and offer closure at the end is noteworthy, the story is lacking in emotional power, despite the authenticity of Siman Tov's character and his lifelong torment. His life journey is not truly felt, but rather witnessed as a distant spectator. In the end, Sabato's message that there is spiritual redemption for us all - from the most humble laborer to the intellectual snob - shines like a very remote beacon of hope.