To purgatory and back

Harry Freund's novel takes readers on a journey to the afterlife.

purgatory 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
purgatory 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I Never Saw Paris By Harry I. Freund Carroll & Graf 197 Pages; $23 Harry Freund has written a book about five people awaiting judgment in the afterlife and trying to figure out what it all means. What's that, you ask, didn't Mitch Albom write that book a few years ago? Well, kind of. While the premise of Freund's I Never Saw Paris sounds almost identical to Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven, the stories, writing style and conclusions are as different as night and day. In Heaven, Albom's protagonist Eddie, a lovable carnival worker who dies trying to save a child, begins his afterlife by meeting with five people who passed on before him, upon whom he had a great impact. He learns things he was never aware of before his death, and moves on to the great unknown with a greater understanding of how our actions affect others and how we are all inextricably intertwined. In Paris, Freund's protagonist Irving Caldman is a cursing, self-indulgent adulterer who does not draw an ounce of sympathy from the reader. He and four strangers are killed in a traffic accident and hang around in purgatory waiting for their final judgment, wondering why they were placed together. The attractive middle-aged personal shopper, black God-fearing housekeeper, 20-something gay interior designer/prostitute and candy store-owning Holocaust survivor seem to have nothing in common with Caldman and are unhappy that their guiding angel is making them share stories and secrets of their private personal lives with one another. Although the theme of Freund's novel is not exactly original, his ideas are creative and insightful and would likely be of interest to anyone curious about life after death. One annoying aspect of the novel that makes it less believable is how the angels sometimes seem too human. They are always complaining about their jobs, the forms they have to fill out, the procedure and protocol, how inundated they are with souls and how backed-up heaven is. Freund, who is the father of Jerusalem Post columnist Michael Freund, may have thought this would add to his readers' insight into the goings-on in heaven, but it makes one a little uncomfortable thinking the angels may be bearing a grudge when processing us after our time comes. At one point the characters are surprised to see a female angel and she tells them that they've "only recently been permitted to mingle with mixed-gender souls" because they've only been emancipated for the past thousand years or so. This humanizing of the angels is distracting and sends the reader's mind on a tangents rather than adding to the story. The angels are also very critical of the souls, calling them "pests... little uneventful lives... nothings and nobodies, flesh and blood, bits of souls stuffed into disposable bodies... of little consequence." If the angels are merely laborers shuffling souls about and getting them to the One True Judge, what right do they have judging them? At least Freund recognizes the inconsistency by having the souls fight back. Brett, the interior designer says "...who made me this way, did I choose to be gay?... Who put my soul into this body?... Did I do this to myself? Why should I be judged for it?" Caldman has a point as well when he tells the angel "try being human for fifty or sixty or seventy years and then we'll talk." A tidbit that is sure to be overlooked by non-Hebrew-speaking readers is the significance of the angels' names. The one with the largest role is Malakh (Hebrew for angel). The bad cop to Malakh's good cop act, making accusations left and right, is Kataygore (Aramaic for prosecutor). The angel Gabriel, familiar from the Book of Daniel, also makes an appearance, as does a seraph with the exact physical appearance that is described in the Book of Isaiah. References to Judaism are abundant throughout the novel. Souls are supposed to await judgment for 30 days, as Jewish tradition holds. A voice announces, as if straight out of the Talmud (Avoda Zara 17a), "Some people win their eternity in one instant." It goes on to explain that, as is mentioned in the Yom Kippur service, "repentance, prayer and charity can win pardon." Even Freund's very last line, the conclusion of his novel, is a direct quote from the Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 59b. It is nice that the author brings in so many Jewish and biblical sources, but would have been nicer still if he had attributed them as such instead of allowing the majority of readers to believe that he came up with the ideas himself. Other things are as we might expect or hope. Each soul is allowed to see loved ones who passed on before them, each is asked what earthly accomplishment they are most proud of and one thing they wish they had done differently. Most of the novel is written in conversation form, either between the souls and the angels among themselves, or in scenes from the past that the angels show as if on a movie screen. To say the writing is colloquial would be kind. It is so rough around the edges that it's hard to believe anyone talks like this - especially heavenly beings. The angels use expressions such as "oh darn" and "get real." Nor are the characters engaging enough to make a reader really care about them. The only thing that keeps one reading is the curiosity about the afterlife and how one's own final judgment might play out one day. Freund gives us glimpses into the way he sees this world and the next, but the reader doesn't get much more than that. "There is so much more that happens in your world that you don't know, don't understand," says Malakh, mentioning reincarnations and judgments that take place to correct things that happened in previous lives but giving no examples. The reader is left with many questions. For instance, Mendel the Holocaust survivor asks the seraph about all the horrors he suffered, as well as why illness, natural disasters and terrorism happen to good people. The seraph says that "it is not permissible for humans to know why the good suffer and why the evil ones sometimes succeed... What you humans must do is try to live through the pain, and turn the suffering into some good. And if you cannot live through it, retain your trust; that is the test of every human being." Readers do discover along the way the importance of Eddie's meetings with his five people, but they may be disappointed at the end of Paris to never find a clear connection between the souls Caldman meets after death, aside from some vague plans they had all had to visit Paris. While Albom's writing draws readers in and intrigues them as to the healing process of Eddie's soul, Freund's novel keeps us reading not because we care about the characters or because we enjoy his writing but simply out of curiosity. While he has some interesting ideas about the afterlife, most are left undeveloped and our curiosity is left unsatiated. And although Freund's conclusion seems to come suddenly and does not tie up all loose ends into a neat package, it does leave us with a warm and hopeful feeling about what the end may bring. The fate of the souls, too, is drawn from a concept in Judaism that "lo bashamayim hi," "it's not in heaven." God may have a plan, but ultimately, as I Never Saw Paris concludes, man's fate is up to no one but himself.