Man­drakes from the Holy Land

Aharon Megged
  • Review
By – July 26, 2012

Beat­rice, a young Eng­lish­woman with a bent for adven­ture, trav­els alone to Pales­tine in 1906. Her unusu­al pur­pose is to find and paint the flow­ers men­tioned in the Old Tes­ta­ment, most espe­cial­ly the man­drake, an herb whose roots and white flower res­onate sym­bol­i­cal­ly in her sto­ry. Jour­nal entries and let­ters to her close friend, Vanes­sa, reveal her unsta­ble and naïve char­ac­ter, and tell the sto­ry of her search, and of the dis­as­ter that engulfs her. Yet this painter is quite nat­u­ral­ly an astute observ­er of her sur­round­ings, and has filled her jour­nal with del­i­cate descrip­tions of land­scape and city, and of the peo­ple she encounters.

Com­ments by the fam­i­ly doc­tor who is sent to report on her con­di­tions and to help her are meant to inform Vanes­sa and, not so inci­den­tal­ly, the read­er, about Beatrice’s emo­tion­al state, and also to inter­pret her aber­rant behav­ior. His analy­sis of her con­di­tion is at odds with Beatrice’s under­stand­ing of her sit­u­a­tion, and leaves the read­er, at the end, with a puz­zle to unrav­el. And speak­ing of puz­zles, why is a famed and accom­plished Israeli author and crit­ic writ­ing about a devout Christian’s quixot­ic ven­ture into the unknown? 

This nov­el is not mere­ly trav­el fic­tion, nor is it just a psy­cho­log­i­cal study of a trou­bled per­son­al­i­ty. It presents a tapes­try of inter­wo­ven themes that impinge on Beatrice’s encounter with the Mid­dle East and its inhab­i­tants. The desire for free­dom of sex­u­al expres­sion as exem­pli­fied by Britain’s Blooms­bury Group, of which Beat­rice and Vanes­sa are mem­bers, along with Vanessa’s sis­ter, Vir­ginia Woolf, and oth­er Eng­lish literati, cre­ates con­fu­sion and con­flict about her sex­u­al impuls­es. Vis­it­ing the ancient reli­gious sites, where Jew­ish and Chris­t­ian and Moslem his­to­ries have emerged, enhances her devo­tion to Chris­tian­i­ty. Her encoun­ters with Jew­ish pio­neers, immi­grants, and refugees from pogroms in Europe, awak­en in her a new under­stand­ing of the Jew­ish peo­ple. Her deal­ings with her Arab guide and his fam­i­ly plunge her into an anx­ious state. The nation­al­ist con­flicts of many kinds that fore­tell a threat­ened peace, the emer­gence of that unique Israeli inven­tion, the kib­butz, and the var­i­ous respons­es of the grow­ing Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion to Zion­ism, all pro­vide bulk and dimen­sion to her trav­els, her jour­nal, and there­fore to this novel. 

Read­ers of Megged’s oth­er books, such as Foiglman, The Liv­ing Or the Dead, and the oth­er works which have won him a num­ber of prizes, will wel­come this new trans­la­tion into Eng­lish of his short but mas­ter­ful novel.

Claire Rudin is a retired direc­tor of the New York City school library sys­tem and for­mer librar­i­an at the Holo­caust Resource Cen­ter and Archives in Queens, NY. She is the author of The School Librar­i­an’s Source­book and Chil­dren’s Books About the Holocaust.

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