Portrait of a king

Geraldine Brooks’s latest novel chronicles the life of King David from the viewpoint of Natan the prophet

Geraldine Brooks says she wanted to give readers a ‘sense of a distant time’ in her latest book on King David (photo credit: RANDI BAIRD)
Geraldine Brooks says she wanted to give readers a ‘sense of a distant time’ in her latest book on King David
(photo credit: RANDI BAIRD)
Geraldine Brooks is interested in stories from the past that are “implausible yet actually happen.”
All of author’s five novels engage themselves in worlds where not everything was recorded and written down, so she seeks to imagine what might have been written at the time.
From 17th-century Native Americans in Massachusetts to an illiterate society in the Middle Ages quarantining themselves against the bubonic plague, Brooks is fascinated by what writing can accomplish in “knowing a man’s mind.”
That is just the approach the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer has taken in her newest book, The Secret Chord, which chronicles the court of King David from the point of view of the prophet Natan, best known for his indictment of the king’s behavior with Bathsheba.
As recorded in the Bible, Natan tells the king a parable of a rich man with many flocks and a poor man with one ewe lamb; the rich man has taken the poor man’s one ewe and killed it. David is horrified by the greed and callousness of the rich man, and opines that the life of the ewe should be paid back fourfold by the rich man. Natan remarks, “Ata ha’ish [you are the man]” (II Samuel 12:7).
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post via phone, Brooks said there are two reasons she chose to write about David from the viewpoint of Natan, whom she refers to as Natan in the book.
One, she said, is that in her reading she came across two references to the words of David, and the words of King Solomon being written in the words of Natan.
“Holy cow, what kind of book would this guy have written?” she remembers thinking. Natan, she thought, was the one person in the kingdom whose task it was to “tell the king what he does not want to hear.”
“I love the Hebrew prophets,” she said.
“They are such badasses and inconvenient truth tellers.”
Brooks’s second reason for selecting Natan as a narrator is based on her time serving as the Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal in the late 1980s to mid-1990s when she visited Israel numerous times. She described the difference between “getting the story and the story you tell.”
She might have had dinner with Queen Noor of Jordan one night, she said, but the next time she’d file a story about King Hussein’s thoughts on a current issue.
In making Natan her narrator, she said, she was imagining “what it was like to be entrusted with this” task of telling King David’s story so the king could be “known as a man.”
In fact, she said, the “real source of my fascination with David comes much more from my time as a Middle East correspondent.”
To develop the characters in the court, she drew on her knowledge of characters in modern Middle Eastern politics. David’s sons Amnon and Avshalom – who act without restraint in all ways, were influenced by Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay who, according to Brooks, went around “rampaging, raping women” and generally “brutalizing without restraint.”
Her understanding of the women in David’s kingdom was aided by her experience reporting on Muslim women’s lives (she is also the author of a non-fiction book Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women), who often live “in a precarious situation with no public power.”
However, Brooks added, that while the vast majority of Iranians don’t know the name of Ayatollah Khomeini’s wife, the elite know she was a powerful figure and “if you need to get anything done you are advised to bring it to Khadijeh.”
Brooks did many things to research the book – learn about music in ancient Israel, about military tactics and strategy and how David might have carried out some of his military campaigns, and of course, travel to Israel. She spoke rapturously of the time she and her then-10- year-old son – and research assistant – Bizu spent in Israel in December 2013. At Neot Kedumim they practiced the art of shepherding, in the Kidod mountains they stayed in a Beduin encampment and rode camels (despite later discovering there were no camels in Israel during the time of David) and at Ein Gedi they saw firsthand the caves where David hid from Saul.
In the Eila Valley, the pair viewed the site where David fought Goliath, and in Jerusalem’s City of David they participated in an archeological dig. Brooks said she took huge pleasure in seeing the country through the eyes of her son, though her connection to Israel comes from her father as well, who served in the Australian army in Palestine in the 1940s and as a socialist was “obsessed with the kibbutz movement.”
While Brooks says her Hebrew is just about good enough to read street signs and say “toda raba” (thank you), she chose to use the modern Hebrew names and spellings for the characters and places in the book. She wanted, she said, to give her readers the “sense of a distant time” and the “strangeness of the Second Iron Age,” not to use the biblical names that “one hears in the playground in Brooklyn.”
This process of defamiliarization, beginning with the language, is one of the aims of the novel – after all, when you already know the plot of a book, what is left to enjoy about reading it? In the case of The Secret Chord, seeing what new wrinkles a seasoned fiction writer can add even when you know the ending yields plenty of pleasures for a reader. Brooks adds some details partly based on rabbinic expositions, or midrashim, about the relationship between David’s parents and the attitude of his siblings toward him, and why all were eager to see him go off with Saul to the court. In particular, she imagines the lives and motives of the women around David – his mother Nitzevet and wives Batsheva and Michal – in a bountiful way, giving their motives a piquancy and particularity missing from the sparseness of the biblical text. One lovely aspect of the plot is the paternal role that Natan adopts toward Shlomo, the son he understands is destined to be David’s successor, though Shlomo appears to be low in the line of succession.
In many ways, Brooks is going back to an old form of interpretation and midrashic writings that Jews wrote early on in Jewish history ■