Reconstructing a fragmented past

The intricate plot of this novel, like a mosaic, draws together events in distant parts of the Roman empire

Adama Shehora  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Adama Shehora
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Adama Shehora (Black Earth)
By Natalie Messika
(in Hebrew)
338 pp.,
NIS 78 (recommended price)

This gripping historical novel, set in the first century CE in Judea, Galilee, Rome and Pompeii, focuses upon two events: the siege and fall of Yodfat (67 CE) in Galilee during the Great Revolt and the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in southern Italy several years later (79 CE) that engulfed the surrounding area, unexpectedly ending in a dramatic moment the lives of many, including the inhabitants of Pompeii.

The novel, whose aesthetic cover depicts a Roman fresco, a personification of spring, of a woman collecting flowers, has three main characters: Yehuda of Capua, engaged upon a search into his background; Miriam, the mother who raised him, a woman bond-servant who spent her childhood in Yodfat until its siege and fall and was taken captive by the Roman victors; and the senator Julius Polybius of Pompeii, an affluent, cultured and thoughtful man, well-matched by his astute wife, and much involved in the public life of the town that became his home and which is brought to life for the reader on the brink of its destruction.

The story is a patchwork of reminiscences, fragmented historical recollections that eventually come together to a fuller picture, revealing much about the lives of the leading characters and the dramatic events that they experienced. It opens with Yehuda on a ship coming back to the port of Ostia, after visiting his dying mother, and ends with his visit to the Land of Israel, to which he has taken her bones to be buried. In between, there is a trip, of discovery of past events as well as of inner discovery.

It is Miriam, as she is dying, who wishes to relate to Yehuda her past, the life in Galilee prior to the revolt, Yodfat's siege and fall, her being taken captive and her life as a kitchen servant in Polybius's villa, her fleeing Pompeii and her subsequent life, marriage and children. In uncovering the past, there are several surprises - what exactly transpired at Yodfat, the treachery of the ill-fated defenders' leader, Josephus, the identity and past of Yehuda. Suffice it to say that themes of identity and allegiance are delicately woven into the plot.

It is in the depiction of the society and life in Pompeii and the Roman characters rather than in the portrayal of Miriam's early life in Yodfat that the novel is particularly captivating. It succeeds in recreating the flavor of the times, yet in regard to the conditions in Judea and Galilee, other than in a brief vivid glimpse of Jerusalem and the Temple - the image is less clear. Those living in Galilee seem to be isolated and lacking a true grasp or awareness of events.

Perhaps as Miriam is a young girl on the verge of maturity, she cannot be expected to have had broader horizons. It is more personal issues, rather than national, that concern her - her feelings for her friend Shlomit's strange brother, Elhanan, who makes dire utterances and disappears after being suspected of being connected with a heretical scroll, to reappear years later as a heroic fighter in the siege.

It is the depiction of Roman life in Pompeii that is more vivid and told with a sure and observant eye. Here, the characters are more sharply drawn and the atmosphere of the town is well evoked: its inhabitants, buildings, streets and bathhouses as it faces the ominous climactic threat, the more dramatic in that its outcome is known to the reader but not to the unsuspecting characters caught up in their various pursuits.

The intricate plot, like a mosaic, draws together events in distant parts of the Roman empire - Yodfat and Pompeii. Polybius's daughter, Julia, is a young widow, whose late husband, Antonius, an officer, had been killed treacherously at Yodfat. The incident is actually described in Josephus's The Jewish War. She becomes revitalized with the prospect of a new companion in life, Livinius, a high-ranking commander of the 10th Legion, who, it appears, also fought at Yodfat, even suggesting to Vespasian the ramp construction so essential in overcoming the formidable defenses of the town. This Livinius is also able to tell of the defenders' leader, Josephus, and, of course, the circumstances of the siege from the Roman perspective.

The historical circumstances and Yodfat's fall, the central motif, are interspersed throughout the novel and are related in retrospect, based mainly, though not invariably, upon Miriam's reminiscences as told to Yehuda, just before she dies. It is in describing the material culture of the times, rather than the spiritual, that the novel is particularly effective - structures, buildings and particular objects, such as Elhanan's heretical scroll; the crab and soul medallion (an actual find that is depicted) that he gives to his love, Miriam, before his heroic death; the ruins of Megiddo or of Yodfat; Yehuda's initialed ivory and gold baby pin; the black urn, brought to Julia, covered with red paintings of soldiers dressed only in a helmet and lance with her husband's remains; the container of Miriam's bones, taken for reburial to Yodfat.

Less is told of Judean spiritual heritage, beliefs and practices. The rabbinical figures are minor and not developed; the sources quoted are few and sporadic. That the author is an archeologist is quite apparent from her detailed descriptions of materials, structures and objects. She has worked extensively on archeological sites, including Yodfat and Pompeii. Incidentally, she is not the only Israeli archeologist to have written a historical novel (another being Yoram Avi-Tamar, author of Hayyei Yosef, relating to the same period) and to have sought to augment the scholar's dry analysis of history and its material remains with a flight of imagination that brings ancient times to life.

With the fall of Yodfat, Miriam is taken as a captive to foreign shores from the hostile port of Acre. She feels she no longer has a land, a home or a name or anyone to care for her. This theme of belonging, of being, of identity is apparent in regard to other characters, too. Polybius remains attached to his home in his heavy toga to the last, proud of his heritage.

Of Miriam's heritage, little is told, yet Jewish identity is important for her. A dramatic scene after her flight from Pompeii describes her coming upon several Jews and bringing them to circumcise the young Yehuda. Miriam, who lost her family, is not so different from Yehuda, who also, it appears, is quite alone. Both reaffirm life and, in Yehuda's case, a new life in the Land of Israel among descendants of people with whom Miriam grew up. On her death, she tells Yehuda of three requests: to care for his sisters, to try to find out the truth regarding Josephus and the events at Yodfat and to bury her at the site where Elhanan's body was interred.

Thus both she and Yehuda come back, in the end, to the Land of Israel, the novel ending with the words of the Kaddish that Yehuda recites for his mother. The story, like pottery shards brought together, reveals a fuller picture. It is not merely a historical novel relating events, it also tells of the search of the individual for life, for place and belonging.

There are other historical novels set in this period, but Adama Shehora has a charm of its own, a sensitive portrayal of characters caught up in cataclysmic events they cannot fathom, uprooted in some way but coming finally to a reaffirmation of new life.

The work reveals an artistic touch, a scholar's pen and underlying timeless themes, qualities that characterize an accomplished historical novel.

The writer is currently compiling an annotated bibliography of Jewish historical novels.