The Salt Line

  • Review
By – May 8, 2023

At the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Poli­akov, a Russ­ian Jew­ish rev­o­lu­tion­ary, flees the author­i­ties after par­tic­i­pat­ing in an assas­si­na­tion and aban­don­ing his preg­nant girl­friend. He ends up in Leh, a small, back­wa­ter town in north­ern India. There he is treat­ed by a British doc­tor named McKen­zie, head of the local hos­pi­tal, who is also far from home — and obses­sive­ly plot­ting against the Ital­ian archae­ol­o­gist who stole” his wife. This baroque revenge involves forged and buried antiq­ui­ties, scrolls with a reli­gious back­sto­ry invent­ed out of whole cloth, and a com­plex plot that pulls many char­ac­ters, like Poli­akov, into its orbit. 

The cuck­old­ed McKen­zie has a recur­ring night­mare about a man sink­ing into the sands of the desert under the heavy weight of an anchor. The inclu­sion of anchors among the antiq­ui­ties they bury in the desert is an apt choice by the author, emblem­at­ic of the weight of the doctor’s own shame, sad­ness, regret, and lone­li­ness. This is one of sev­er­al self-destruc­tive obses­sions thread­ed through­out the narrative.

Though Poli­akov and McKen­zie have both lost their own faith, they under­stand that humans will believe any well-told tale that is in their own self-inter­est. They thus expect that their fab­ri­cat­ed reli­gious nar­ra­tive, no less ridicu­lous than those already believed by most of the world, will bam­boo­zle the arro­gant Euro­pean schol­ars, who pil­lage their colo­nial pos­ses­sions and make off with the spoils. 

The deci­sions made by these men and sev­er­al minor char­ac­ters rever­ber­ate through­out the gen­er­a­tions, as sons and grand­sons in Israel, India, and Eng­land unwit­ting­ly repeat the mis­takes of their fathers. Although these tales are sep­a­rat­ed by many decades, they are skill­ful­ly inter­wo­ven, and it often seems that all the threads are hap­pen­ing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly; Poliakov’s son is described as the old man” he will become, even in sto­ries from his youth. Their futures feel inevitable, fore­told like their con­coct­ed ancient” scrip­tures. These are men and boys plagued by feel­ings of inad­e­qua­cy, who believe that feats of hero­ism in bat­tle will make them real men, and who then suf­fer from guilt over their actions or inac­tions. Emo­tion­al­ly stunt­ed, they hold them­selves at a dis­tance, igno­rant of their own moti­va­tions, nurs­ing old grudges, obliv­i­ous to the peo­ple who love them and want their love. As McKen­zie rumi­nates in a rare moment of per­cep­tive­ness: Blind­ness knows no bounds … If man was aware of the num­ber of mis­takes he would yet make on the road ahead, how many fail­ures would befall him, how his heart would hurt, he wouldn’t dare take even one step.”

This 860-page nov­el requires a patient read­er; mul­ti­ple chap­ters take place in a dark room where the hes­i­tant Poli­akov decides whether or not to kill a man. This patience is more than reward­ed in the end, as it grad­u­al­ly becomes clear how all the strands of the book fit togeth­er. The unex­pect­ed con­nec­tions between eras, though invis­i­ble to the char­ac­ters, are thrilling to the read­er. The sto­ry speeds up toward the end, begin­ning with the trek into the desert to bury the antiq­ui­ties (which is rel­a­tive­ly ear­ly in the actu­al chronol­o­gy). The char­ac­ters all hur­tle towards their fates — in some cas­es literally.

Not for the faint of heart, You­val Shimoni’s kalei­do­scop­ic nov­el, ably trans­lat­ed from the Hebrew by Michael Sharp, spans one cen­tu­ry, three con­ti­nents, and three gen­er­a­tions. Offer­ing a cyn­i­cal, per­cep­tive, and expan­sive view of human fol­ly and weak­ness, with ele­ments of time­less human tragedy and plot lines that recall ancient myth, The Salt Line is a mov­ing med­i­ta­tion on the pow­er of storytelling. 

Lau­ren Gilbert is Direc­tor of Pub­lic Ser­vices at the Cen­ter for Jew­ish His­to­ry in New York City, where she man­ages the Lil­lian Gold­man Read­ing Room and Ack­man & Ziff Fam­i­ly Geneal­o­gy Insti­tute and arranges and mod­er­ates online book discussions.

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