A clash of ancient and modern

Dror Burstein’s latest novel is set in a Jerusalem that has a First Temple, a king, computers and a light rail

‘LIGHT RAIL trains run continually; but they are scary places where supernatural happenings terrorize passengers.’ (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
‘LIGHT RAIL trains run continually; but they are scary places where supernatural happenings terrorize passengers.’
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Is it possible to believe in contradicting multiple realities without being deceitful to oneself?
Dror Burstein’s wildly inventive novels seem to indicate it is. Burstein’s mind is always expanding into alternative realms of thought while still somehow remaining tethered to the talmudic teachings of his childhood religious home, a world he has for the most part abandoned.
In 2013’s Netanya, a contemplative work of literary genius that involves a lone man spending one night lying quietly on an outdoor park bench staring at the sky, he seduced us with thoughts like this one: “How flimsy our existence is, how many conditions must exist and continue to exist over the course of millions of years so that a single flower or a single pencil might exist.”
God wasn’t mentioned directly, but we felt his presence in Burstein’s fascination with the stars above him; and his thoughts on infinite secrets that space must contain. Meteor showers and the moon and gravity were written about with a holy reverence. Interspersed with his celestial reverie were the tragedies that had assaulted his family’s life. Distinctly Jewish tragedies. His beloved grandfather, who barely survived the Holocaust and had come to Israel, where he lost one of his sons in the Yom Kippur War. His father, who bore the brunt of his grandfather’s grief. His own sadness over matters that laced his own life – a classmate who died prematurely and other childhood memories of disastrous events that lay completely out of his control – yet he seemed to bear their burden.
Burstein’s narrator in Netanya seems angry with God but also indebted to him; for the privilege of allowing him to witness the marvels of the night sky and contemplate its mysteries. But it is clear he is also upset and confused by God’s inexplicable long silences.
In Muck, his brilliant new work, he tries to retell the story of Jeremiah the prophet with his own subversive twist. The story, translated from Hebrew by Gabriel Levin, takes place in a modern-day Israel that somehow simultaneously encompasses both the past and present, almost overlapping one another. There is rampant corruption, greed, prostitution, gambling, and children being bought and sold. There are orgies and gluttonous feasts and false prophets roaming everywhere.
Foreign armies are continually threatening and the people have strayed from God and his mandates. Shady compromises dominate the landscape. Yet the First Temple still stands. There are helicopters buzzing above and new secret technologies that penetrate people’s privacy. Light rail trains run continually; but they are scary places where supernatural happenings terrorize passengers. There is poetry too, and writers who compete with one another for attention, as writers always have. Burstein is quietly present, too, on every page, wondering alongside us how this will turn out. What will happen to the Jews? Is another apocalypse imminent and are we ignoring its blinking signals?
We meet Jeremiah, a budding poet, on his way to visit the crotchety Broch, a renowned literary critic known for his outlandish outbursts. Broch assaults Jeremiah with the cord of a computer keyboard, almost draining the life force out of him. Jeremiah is stunned and sits gasping for breath, listening to Broch scream at him for typing on a computer keyboard with fading letters.
“Why aren’t you writing with a pencil in a notebook? Why type all the time? And why keep dashing every day to be published?” Broch shouts. “Reams dispatched to the printers, but none of it deserves to be printed... none of it deserves to be printed; that’s why you really, really, really don’t need your keyboard, which I’ve shattered; you’ll thank me yet for having destroyed your keyboard, because this keyboard is your delusion, the delusion that what you write is ready to see print – and it isn’t, it doesn’t deserve to be printed, those printed letters are blinding you, you’re blind, you’re typing blindly, as you yourself told me, you confessed to your own guilt and handed over to me the condemning word, you and your entire generation, blind writers typing blindly.
“Agnon stood upright day after day and wrote by hand until he lost all feeling in his lower back: Gnessin toiled in a printer’s workshop, the lead gnawed under his nails and into his heart, with his ailing heart he breathed in the lead of the letters, and the lead smothered his heart, but he didn’t think for a moment to type blindly, no. Letter after letter, he arranged! Letter after letter! Letter after letter!”
We hear distinct echoes of author Burstein in Broch’s tirade. His disappointment with the emptiness of the modern world. The lack of soulfulness that seems to be settling. His own longing for some sort of purity, a purity he would have trouble defining. His revulsion to the darkness that has invaded contemporary life. The diminishment of reverence for writing novels and poems of substance.
BURSTEIN’S JEREMIAH has other, more pressing problems. He can no longer deny the voices in his head, voices from God commanding him to intervene. But we sense Jeremiah’s hesitancy, too. He doesn’t want to abandon the life he is leading but feels compelled to do so. He wants to write poetry, but God’s voice is resilient and enticing. He feels compelled to obey. Still, he is worried about his parents and their mournfulness; first ignited by his sister’s death years ago from an abominable illness. His father, a renowned physician, tried to save her, but was unable to do so. His daughter never gave him the chance, slitting her wrists the morning before treatment was to begin. So began this parent’s interminable agony.
Jeremiah thinks to himself, “They’re so helpless when it comes to anything practical. They don’t even know how to unstick the float in their toilet tank. Don’t even know how to change a light bulb.” He worries how they will fare without him; particularly when they are forced into exile. Jeremiah finds himself anguished; drawn to God and his role in God’s plan; but never fully abandoning his worldly attachments.
Jeremiah is also worried about his childhood friend Mattaniah. He knows Mattaniah is keeping a secret. Mattaniah is the son of the late King of Judah, and will be eventually called upon to reign. But Mattaniah doesn’t want to embrace his destiny. He is doing everything he can to forget it. He wants to write.
Mattaniah has tattooed his entire body with cuneiform, pumped up his muscles in the gym, dyed his hair black, and found a girlfriend Noa, who like him, flouts God’s commandments. But escape isn’t really possible. When he ascends to the throne and changes his name to Zedekiah and begins making the compromises that will bring about his and his people’s downfall, it is Jeremiah’s pleading voice in his head that haunts him.
Noa is forced to accompany Mattaniah to the throne as his wife, but longs for the days when she and Mattaniah were free to live as they pleased to. She recalls hearing Mattaniah tell her with a certainty that now seems a mockery, “Our world is a world that’s on its way out, on account of the changing times, on account of the fact that history has begun to replace mythology, and on account of the soldiers and politicians who have begun to replace the People of the Name and the heroes and the giants and the sons of God. What’s left now? The King of Assyria, the King of Babylon, the King of Egypt, buying and selling, giving and taking, subclauses in standard contracts; neither God nor an angel nor a prophet, only their pale replicas.”
But Mattaniah is now the king and their youthful flights of fancy nothing more than lost dreams.
The relationship between Jeremiah and Mattaniah is both loving and antagonistic. Part of Mattaniah believes Jeremiah is the real deal, but he can’t bring himself to listen to him. Mattaniah knows Jeremiah is different, but he can’t stop himself from denigrating him to his girlfriend Noa. Mattaniah tells Noa that Jeremiah is pathetic and has always has been that way; describing him deridingly as “skinny, unkempt, stooped, bursting with thoughts and talk, rat-a-tat, palaver here, palaver there, self-intoxicated, exhilarated by his own thoughts, gazing at the moon at night and listening to the bugs singing to the moonlight.”
He assaults Jeremiah’s fading manhood, claiming, “You’ve got a body, show it some respect. You’ve got a pair of eyes; they’re not only there to gaze up to the crescent moon... And you’ve got a phallus – a gift! – so please, go ahead and use it properly.” But we sense Mattaniah is envious of Jeremiah and knows Jeremiah possesses truths he has no access to. When Mattaniah ascends to the throne, he will seek Jeremiah’s help, but it will already be too late. The Jews’ fate will be sealed.
Burstein was born in 1970 and lives in Tel Aviv, where he has already produced an impressive body of work. He has written another amazingly provocative novel that continually flirts with radically innovative thinking.
The notion that the past and present can and do exist simultaneously reverberating against one another. The terrors the Jews faced and still face for transgressions minimalized or ignored. Or for no reason at all. The emptiness that infects so many Jewish souls. And the anger and bewilderment, too. The eternal search for meaning. For God. For reason. For hope. For some sort of miracle.
Burstein seems to be warning us to fight the fatigue that is setting in and closing off doors. He seems to be begging us to struggle against our own resilient ambivalences and doubt to find some something of worth and relevance and meaning in the ancient teachings before they become for our children and grandchildren little more than forgotten history.