Thursday, February 16, 2017

Youval Shimoni, A Room (1999, I think)

1999 seems like the most reliable date, but the actual translated book says 2006, so I dunno.  Probably a mistake.

This is the first Hebrew novel I’ve ever read (as far as I can remember).  I was looking forward to the translation since before it was published, in 2016; it promised to be the kind of long, postmodern thing that I enjoy--so much so that when it came out, I got a copy and took it all the way to Jakarta with me.  It may well be the only one of its kind in Indonesia. I’m not sure if it’s actually been compared to Gravity’s Rainbow and The Recognitions, but all the reviews say “it has been compared to Gravity’s Rainbow and The Recognitions,” so probably some guy somewhere did.  Sure; seems plausible. 

The...odd thing that you come to discover is that Dalkey Archive is...a little bit disingenous in their description of the book, which goes:

A bedraggled detective is dispatched to an IDF base where a man was burned alive while making a training film. An art student in Paris breaks into a morgue to recreate Mantegna's Lamentation of Christ. A scripture tells of a mythical nation uniting to construct a monument to their deity, then falling into chaos when no one can agree on its precise form or dimensions. Hailed from publication as one of the finest novels ever written in Hebrew, A Room is a monumental, subversive classic of twentieth-century literature.

If you’re me and you read that, you think wow that’s SUPER-FASCINATING I wonder how these disparate stories fit together.  But the fact is...they don’t.  They are in fact three totally separate narratives: respectively, a medium-length novel, a short novel, and a short story.  Sure, they’re thematically related, but THEMATIC RELATION DOES NOT A NOVEL MAKE.  I’ve often said it.  And given my long-novel fetish, I would have been much less likely to buy it had I known this in advance.  Not that it’s any kind of literary sin, but why are you tricking me like this, DA?  Is this how you return my love?  Alas and alack.

Nonetheless, in good faith, I read it.  To elaborate on that description, here is what the first novel, The Lamp, is about: there’s an IDF filmmaking crew on the base in question, preparing to make an informational film for new recruits.  The crew consists of various people, including Schecter the director (no doubt that dumb rhyme isn’t there in the Hebrew); a relentlessly facetious actor calling himself Miki Le-Mic who’s always quoting Shakespeare; two new female recruits, Na’ama and Kinneret; and lighting and sound directors.  The actual, present-day action of the novel consists of these people bickering and bantering as they inefficiently prepare to shoot the film.  The bedraggled detective of the above description is, we are given to understand, watching all this on video (it’s not a totally realist aesthetic), and there are occasionally bits of set-off text in a smaller font with his (and a female medic’s, known only as “the female medic”) reactions.  But the bulk of the novel consists of parenthesized flashbacks about the characters’ pasts: Schecter regrets his failure as a serious film-maker and thinks about his French ex-girlfriend; Na’ama remembers various chance glimpses of romances she’s witnessed and contemplates love in general; Kinneret remembers her bohemian upbringing; the lighting director is angry and embittered about his parents’ estrangement; the sound director thinks about his time visiting Southeast Asia, and...like that.  It’s a very dense text; it’s often not immediately clear whose flashback we’re entering or what its immediate context is.
The thing is, this whole conceit is extremely interesting.  I like it a lot.  And yet...I can scarcely convey to you how unspeakably boring I found this whole thing.  There are no real postmodern fireworks to keep one’s interest up, which would be okay, except that the whole thing is just emotionally arid.  It’s obviously very carefully conceived, but if you can bring yourself to care about any of these people, you are a better human than I (well...a different one, let’s say).  And let it be noted that none of them have plot arcs that are, like, resolved in any way.  It really just kinda stops.  The prose is occasionally evocative, especially in the Asian parts, but...

SUCH WAS MY EXPERIENCE.  I moved through it at a decent clip, not because I was enthralled, but for the opposite reason, really: I realized that if I didn’t force myself onwards, I could easily spend months bogged down in this, and what good does that do anyone?  “I suppose maybe you could’ve tried just not reading it if you weren’t enjoying it...?”  Well...that’s your opinion.

Well, WE CAN’T STOP NOW WE HAVE TO KEEP GOING.  So, The Drawer.  To save you a google image search, here is Andrea Mantegna’s 1480 painting:


It (the novel, not the painting) is about an Israeli art student who is only referred to as “you,” making this technically, I suppose, an example of the rare second-person novel—though when it concerns other characters, you’d never know it wasn’t just regular ol’ third person.  He’s assigned to pay tribute to Mantegna, and he decides the best way to do it is to break into a morgue with three beggars—two women, Edith and Nadia; and a man referred to only as “the bearded clochard”—to recreate the original from which he can make his own painting.  Stylistically, it’s very much the same as The Lamp, albeit with a more restricted cast and canvas: the beggars talk about how they became homeless, the student remembers an ex-girlfriend, and other painters’ efforts on similar themes are reflected on.

And...I can’t say I exactly liked it, but somehow, it seemed as though things came into focus a bit, as it becomes clearer what the book’s larger theme is: it concerns artistic pretentions and ambitions and their failures: the film in The Lamp is just a dumb training film, and yet people take it way too seriously and a man ends up dead; the plan in The Drawer is obviously nuts, yet it too may have its fatality (it’s ambiguous), this time, oh ho, from freezing.  The opening epigraph to the whole is from Borges’ extremely well-known “On Exactitude in Science”—the one where a map of a kingdom keeps getting bigger and bigger until it becomes the territory.  Borges’ story isn’t really about ambition in the same way Shimoni’s book is, but it still seems relevant.  Not just quoting Borges for show.  Also, maybe just because of the smaller canvas, but it seemed easier to get a handle on this second book, and...well, as I said, I didn’t really like it, but I disliked it less, and it started seeming more plausible that there was something to this whole thing. 

“The Throne” is a story that is about...well, that description pretty much tells it.  It’s obvious how it relates to the overall theme.  You can read it quickly, which is a bit of a relief!  It’s fine.  Nothing wrong with it.  You may well enjoy it even if you don’t like the novels, though I think calling it “better” is probably just being lazy.

So, you know.  Look, I was disappointed, and I think that comparing The Room to Pynchon and Gaddis doesn’t do it any favors.  STILL, as noted, I’ve kinda reach the point where I think it may well be substantially better than my subjective impression.  Or maybe not!  It seems quite plausible that it might start to click on a second reading.  I’m not going to give it that—life appears to be too short—but I’m willing to accept that the people writing positive reviews aren’t just being obnoxious.  I’m sure that’s a weight off their shoulders!  Well, I dunno about this guy, whose review mainly just consists of saying stuff that’s in the novels seemingly at random, and, whose mini-bio contains perhaps the oddest credit I’ve ever seen (“an experienced reviewer of erotica”)—but what the hey.  I will say, though, that Dalkey didn’t do themselves any favors by including absolutely no critical apparati beyond a handful of footnotes glossing culturally specific references.  A good introduction could have done a world of good in situating the book and preparing the reader for it, I think.

2 Comments:

Blogger Nguyễn Thanh Tùng pontificated to the effect that...

Nice blog !!!
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11:50 PM  
Blogger GeoX's Nemesis, the Mysterious XoeG pontificated to the effect that...

Huh. The Saudi Arabian spam has been replaced by Vietnamese spam. Well, getting closer, geographically!

10:39 AM  

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