The Book of Mordechai and Lazarus: Two Nov­els (The Hun­gar­i­an List)

Gábor Schein; Adam Z. Levy and Ottilie Mulzet, trans.
  • Review
By – January 4, 2018

The Book of Mordechai and Lazarus: Two Nov­els (The Hun­gar­i­an List) by Gábor Schein; Adam Z. Levy, Ottilie Mulzet, trans. | Jew­ish Book Coun­cil

There is a strange sto­ry, repeat­ed in yeshi­va day school class­es and Shab­bat lunch tables, that when Julius Stre­ich­er reached his rich­ly deserved end at Nurem­berg in 1946, he yelled Purim­fest!” from the gal­lows platform.

The sto­ry of Esther, and that of the Holo­caust: both cas­es in which God was hid­den, and only one of which end­ed in rejoic­ing. The renowned Hun­gar­i­an writer Gábor Schein’s The Book of Mordechaithe first of two novel­las in this vol­ume pub­lished by Seag­ull Press as part of its new Hun­gar­i­an List — sutures togeth­er these sto­ries in the oper­at­ing the­ater of a small oil­cloth-cov­ered table in Hun­gary. The pro­tag­o­nist, called only P., is being taught to read Hebrew by his grand­moth­er, who uses a Hun­gar­i­an trans­la­tion of the Book of Esther as her text­book. The Book of Mordechai alter­nates between the sto­ry of Esther and quick sketch­es of Hun­gar­i­an Jew­ish life in the mid­dle decades of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry — sketch­es that even­tu­al­ly form a full por­trait of the mer­ci­less tran­si­tion from depor­ta­tions and labor camps to the grind of pover­ty under Stal­in. The action” belongs to Mordechai and Esther, Aha­suerus, and Vashti in her defi­ance. The story’s present is mere­ly an act of read­ing, and life hap­pens inside and along­side the trans­lat­ed book. We should speak in a lan­guage that does not exist,” a long-ago rab­bi rue­ful­ly urges in the book’s back­ward glances. If we can­not find the right words, we risk find­ing our­selves bab­bling in the gar­bled tongues of Ahasuerus’s fur­thest provinces, tee­ter­ing over the ledge of the known world.

If The Book of Mordechai is a sto­ry about read­ing that has about it the qui­et side­ways rhythm of that activ­i­ty, this volume’s sec­ond work, Lazarus, puls­es with the anger and anx­i­ety that writ­ing can engen­der, as it demands always anoth­er mark on the page. Lazarus takes the form of a son writ­ing about his father in express dis­obe­di­ence to the latter’s wish­es — an act of love tinged with vio­lence. The unspeak­able and unwritable hor­rors of the Holo­caust com­pound to delin­eate a sullen and air­less present in Com­mu­nist Hun­gary where the chances for lib­er­ty were null.” Lazarus is the project of writ­ing a body, a burn­ing book. I will let it burn away anew, let the words per­ish with it — but not with­out a trace, for burn­ing always leaves behind a mark.” Lazaruss nar­ra­tor sees the res­ur­rec­tion of the bib­li­cal Lazarus not as the tri­umph of life over death, but as mere­ly a par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive sign for the sor­did fail­ures of the imag­i­na­tion. Writ­ing is like the cor­rup­tion of the flesh; it parades wounds instead of bind­ing them togeth­er to allow heal­ing. The only mer­cy is that, like bod­ies, the narrator’s words will even­tu­al­ly become dust.

Ari R. Hoff­man is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty. He is cur­rent­ly a Dex­ter Dis­ser­ta­tion Com­ple­tion Fellow.

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