Saturday, June 23, 2007

a canadian pentateuch

God, I really love A.M. Klein, and every time I read him again I am reminded of what a special and unique way he had with words. His descriptive turns are like nothing else, and the way he evokes emotion is truly his own. While, like all modernists, he expects you to come to his text with a wide range of knowledge, he is also an understanding teacher, and will guide you to discover what you need to know. There is no one else quite like A.M. Klein in the entire Canadian literary canon, and each chance I have to pick up something by him is something really special. In this novella, Klein's longest work, the memory of the poet echoes throughout, as he takes us on a history of not only his Uncle Melech, but of his people, too...

The Second Scroll
by A. M. Klein

His antipathy to the dialect, I am afraid, stemmed also from a nonintellectual source: his gratitude to the land of his adoption. This land hadn't given him much, mainly because he hadn't been a taker, but it had give him -- this was no cliche to my father -- freedom. Whenever one of his Ratno compatriots took it in his mind to run down Canada and its capitalismus, my father would withdraw a coin from his pocket and point to the image thereon engraved: "See this man, this is King George V. He looks like Czar Nicholas II. They are cousins. They wear the same beards. They have similar faces. But they one is to the other like day is to night. Nikolai might be a kapora for this one. After Nikolaichek you shouldn't even so much as whisper a complaint about this country!" This patriotism, it is to be admitted, was essentially pragmatic; it never did reach the fervour of his Canadian friend Cohen the cabinet-maker, the Cohen who had carved the ferocious lions guarding and upholding the Decalogue in front of the Ark of the Covenant in the Chevra Thillim, the martial Cohen who always bore on his person a Union Jack fringed with tzitzith and who threatened at the slightest provocation to fight the South African War over again; but it was none the less a loyalty solidly grounded, and one that was not likely to be impressed by a pilpul that drew all its examples, not from Canada, but from the Russia he had abandoned.


The evening's game had amused me greatly. After all I was looking for neither Operation X nor Plan D, but only for my mother's brother -- and the evening had ended with a quasi-friendship, both of us at last quaffing it down with Canadian V.O. As an abbreviation, he said, for vodka. He then bade me good night, Americano.

"I am not an American. I'm a Canadian."

"Is there a difference? Isn't Canada the forty-ninth state?"

"On the contrary. The States are our eleventh province!"

His laughter -- the gall of the Canuck! the utter absurdity! -- rang throughout the corridor.

The Second Scroll is the story of a Jewish-Canadian journalist in search of his only living relative, Uncle Melech, who he has recently received a letter from after decades of silence. The journey is twofold -- not only is the journalist questing for his uncle, but he is also tasked with finding the contemporary Hebrew poetry of Israel and translating it for a Canadian audience. These two quests operate in tandem to make this a story of Jewish identity in the post-Holocaust world. The journey takes place in 1949, with Israel newly founded and the horrors of the Holocaust (of which Uncle Melech is a survivor).

Uncle Melech is set up to be read as a Messianic figure. His full name is Melech (King) Davidson (Son of David) -- Uncle Melech then represents the messianic condition, being humanity in its purest state. For Melech, this is not somethine he comes by easily. After witnessing the horrors of Russia in 1917, he denounces his faith, certain that no God could allow such horrific things to happen without reprieve. He flees to Poland, where he is eventually swept into Hitler's ghettos and then the concentration camp. In a horrific scene, Melech and his fellow prisoners must perform music for the Nazi guards, who give the musicians time to become entranced by the music before shooting them all dead. Melech discovers that he is still alive, however, trapped beneath a pile of bodies. The Nazi soldiers, intending to bury the prisoners properly the next day, only cover the mass grave in a layer of soil, enabling Melech to escape overnight. He is overwhelmed by the sense that he was spared so that he may absorb the pain and sorrow of all the dead who lay upon him, and rediscovers his faith in God. He is left, however, to journey the dessert in search of Israel... Which he gets to, but he dies there a martyr in a terrorist attack.

All the while, Melech's nephew, the Canadian journalist, is two steps behind his uncle. He searches for him agonizingly, getting tantalizingly close and then snatched away. The journalist doesn't even know what Melech looks like. When he asked for a picture in childhood, his mother informed him that their faith forbid photographs because it contravenes the second commandment. In his journey to find his uncle, he is given a photograph of him -- but the photo had been doubly exposed and the face is indistinguishable. Finally, when he comes face-to-face with his uncle after Melech's death, his face is so horrifically burnt that there are not features to see. Melech's face, then, becomes the impossible goal of the quest, and even in death his nephew is denied the opportunity to recognize his uncle.

The book is structured to follow the pentateuch -- that is, the first five books of the Hebrew bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The events in the novella mirror those of the biblical books of the same name. In Genesis, we are told of the origins of Melech, his history, and also the beginning of the journalist's fascination with this uncle he has never known or seen. In Exodus, just as Moses rose and led the Jews, the nephew is given the letter by Uncle Melech, and is led on his own journey to discover him (he is also, in this book, vested with the task of discovering and translating the poetry of the new Israel). In Leviticus, where in the bible the laws of Judaism are revealed, the nephew finds a letter by Melech that challenged Christianity and the images of the Sistine Chapel, and asserts the ways in which God will rescue his chosen people. In Numbers, just as the Jews wander the desert for forty years, so Melech must wander from Casablanca to Israel, tasked with the goal of helping the Moroccan Jews (a damaged, abused and downtrodden people) to emigrate to Israel. Finally, in Deuteronomy, just as Moses glimpses the promised land momentarily before his death, Melech is martyred just before he would have been able to hold his only living relative in Israel. (It is also in Deuteronomy that Melech's nephew finds the literature of Israel -- doubly interesting considering the biblical Deuteronomy is composed of a series of Moses' speeches).

There's clearly a lot going on in this novella. In only 100 pages, Klein evokes the history of the Jewish people from biblical times to the emergence of the state of Israel. Certainly no small feat. What is most fascinating to a Canadianist (or at least this one), however, is the fact that Klein interweaves all of this with Canada -- the narrator is constantly asserting his Canadianess, his Canadian identity, and reveling in the different that necessarily creates.

I'm not fully sure what to make of this novella, yet, but I would recommend it to just about anyone.

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