Eter­nal Life: A Novel

  • Review
By – June 20, 2017

Immor­tal­i­ty has always fired the human imag­i­na­tion. Homer’s Odysseus spurned eter­nal life so that he could go home to his wife. The Chris­t­ian para­ble of the Wan­der­ing Jew sees immor­tal­i­ty as a curse: a Jew who mocks Jesus is pun­ished by being unable to die until the Sec­ond Com­ing. Today, high-tech lead­ers in Sil­i­con Val­ley are pour­ing bil­lions of dol­lars into anti-aging research, hop­ing to defeat death.

Eter­nal Life, a nov­el both adven­tur­ous and wise, imag­ines two immor­tals as old as the Wan­der­ing Jew who dwell among us today. Their lives retrace the jour­neys of the Jew­ish peo­ple, from Jerusalem to Anti­och to Pumbe­di­ta, in Alexan­dria and Alep­po, through Spain and Poland, to Amer­i­ca and Israel. Yet this is no alle­go­ry — it’s a love sto­ry, or many love sto­ries, with the same con­flicts and joys and heart­breaks that are part of any life.

The novel’s immor­tals, Rachel and Elazar, nev­er had the illu­sion that it would be a bless­ing to live for­ev­er. They made a bar­gain for rea­sons great and small and faced the con­se­quences. Elazar suf­fers from mem­o­ries of his fam­i­ly over dozens of gen­er­a­tions: I saw every child grow up. And I watched every sin­gle one of them die.” It’s almost more than he can bear. Rachel, on the oth­er hand, still lives for her chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, as painful as that can some­times be. Yet she is haunt­ed by the cycles of his­to­ry. When a few peo­ple con­gre­gate threat­en­ing­ly in front of a Jew­ish shop, it reminds her of the many cat­a­stroph­ic mas­sacres that began just that way.

Dara Horn cap­tures the sights, smells, and sounds of Jerusalem under Roman occu­pa­tion as vivid­ly as she por­trays Man­hat­tan in our present moment of blockchain spec­u­la­tion and genet­ic research. She is also intel­lec­tu­al­ly provoca­tive, mus­ing about expla­na­tions of the sotah rit­u­al for accused adul­ter­ers, the word­ing of the Kol Nidre prayer, and the name of the High Priest’s orac­u­lar breast­plate. Strik­ing­ly, Horn has a priest sug­gest that the pow­er of the Tem­ple is to make peo­ple die with­out dying. With­out the Tem­ple we would have to wait until death to be judged or for­giv­en by God.” That’s a dev­as­tat­ing thought: immor­tals with no access to Tem­ple rit­u­als are con­demned to live with­out ever being forgiven.

Eter­nal Life is enlivened by wit­ty, mor­dant depic­tions of every­day life. One scene mem­o­rably describes a cour­t­house wait­ing room as a sin­gles bar: Every­one is sit­ting for­ev­er, just look­ing at each oth­er. It’s like an exis­ten­tial­ist play.” The novel’s per­son­al­i­ties are also delight­ful­ly, thor­ough­ly believ­able — even the ones who make only brief appear­ances like the man with over­due papers and unful­filled oblig­a­tions swirling around him like a vis­i­ble man­i­fes­ta­tion of his har­ried soul,” or the char­ac­ter who reports My doc­tor told me to buy a juicer and it changed my life.”

There are a cou­ple of jar­ring notes — when, for exam­ple, Sec­ond Tem­ple Jews dis­cuss empow­er­ment or ques­tion author­i­ty as if they were emis­saries from twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. Else­where in the nov­el, a scribe remarks that the Tem­ple has prac­ti­cal­ly become the country’s cen­tral bank,” though there were no cen­tral banks in the world until a few hun­dred years ago. But those laps­es are few. Dara Horn brings immense imag­i­na­tion to her grip­ping sto­ry — an ambi­tious, sat­is­fy­ing, and mov­ing med­i­ta­tion on what we ulti­mate­ly live for.

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