April 9, 2000
“Not the arrival but the journey matters,” according to a popular saying. The literary equivalent might be: “Not the story but the telling matters.” In either form, this alleged bit of modernist wisdom invites the skeptical reply: Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. Getting to Heaven (if there is a Heaven) is more important than having an interesting life. And most of us read fiction to find out what happens and ponder what it means rather than to marvel over narrative strategy and formal ingenuity. “Ulysses” may be a supremely cunning fictional contraption, but few readers would finish it if it weren’t also rollicking good fun.
Marcel Moring’s “In Babylon” is full of happenings, meanings, and fun as well as ingenious storytelling. This is only the young Dutch author’s third novel, but he’s already a prizewinner and a European bestseller. “The Great Longing” (1995), his second novel and the first to be translated intoEnglish, was a spare, fractured tale of two brothers and a sister in their twenties, whose parents died in a car crash and who reunite after years apart in foster care. When not drifting through Dutch youth culture, they trade memories incessantly, longing to create or recreate a family for themselves. Though a considerable achievement, “The Great Longing” felt a little cerebral: alive, but too closely shadowed by its themes of memory, family, contingency.
“In Babylon” returns to these themes -- again a bit obsessively -- but embeds them in a larger, more resonant, more entertaining story. The Hollanders are a family of Dutch Jews whose ancestors were clockmakers and were much given to wandering. Only two remain: Nathan, a writer of fairy tales, and his niece and agent, Nina. The framework of the novel is several days these two spend together, snowbound, in the family retreat, a country house Nathan has inherited from his Uncle Herman.
Uncle Herman, an eminent academic who died in his eighties in bed with a prostitute, left Nathan the house conditionally: Nathan must write his uncle’s biography. The biography has turned into a family saga, beginning with a flight from marauding Cossacks in 17th-century Lithuania. Nathan tells some parts of this story to Nina as they sit around the table or in front of the fire. But other parts simply begin, unobtrusively, and we find ourselves in the middle of them; so that by the end, the reader is hardly sure whether the family history is one element of the novel or whether the events of the novel form part of the family history. Moring and Nathan are such skillful and prolific storytellers that fact, fiction, and fairy tale blur together, pleasurably.
In 1648 Chaim Levi, a clockmaker in Chmielnicki, and his wife Friede were butchered by Cossacks. His nephew Magnus picked up his uncle’s box of tools from the burnt-out house, walked west, and settled twenty years later in the Low Countries, the “Land of Milk and Butter.” The family prospered and, in gratitude, took the name of their adopted home.
The 20th-century Hollanders are also wanderers. Uncle Herman and Emmanuel, Nathan’s father, take the family to America to escape the Nazis. Emmanuel, a dreamy but gifted inventor, meets the celebrated physicist Enrico Fermi, a colleague of his father’s. Fermi takes him off to New Mexico to work on the Manhattan Project, where little Nathan sees the first atomic bomb test in the company of a “Mr. Feynman.” After the war Herman and Manny stay in New York, while Sophie, Nathan’s mother, takes the four children back to Europe. The youngest, Zeno, becomes a prodigy, a mystic, and a 20-year-old cult leader, then disappears, leaving behind a pregnant follower who moves in with the Hollanders and gives birth to Nina.
This family history is, you’ll remember, only a plot within the main plot. Well, within this plot-within-a-plot sprout still more fantasies, fables, and fairy tales, some of them narrated by Uncle Chaim and Magnus, who have been visiting Nathan since his boyhood. There is the parable of the holy billygoat, with which the Kotzker rebbe reconciles the quarreling Schloime Kreisky and Yankel Davidovitch. The tale of Block, the evil forester, who replaces the mysteriously disappeared Berg, and of Berg’s son, who restores his father and banishes Block with the aid of a talking hare. The story of Shabbetai Zevi, the false Messiah, and his self-designated wife, who before their marriage sins with every man she meets in order to make her eventual renunciation more perfect. And a secular retelling of the Babel story, in which the tower is destroyed not by God but by a skeptical and pragmatic traveller who undermines everyone’s faith in the project.
Meanwhile, the main plot has been gathering menace and erotic charge. The country house has supposedly been abandoned for five years, since Uncle Herman’s death. But it hasn’t: it’s newly stocked with food, but also booby-trapped. And the firewood has been removed, so Nathan and Nina are forced to burn the house’s valuable and memory-laden antique furnishings for fuel. The cold is so fierce and perilous that they must sleep in the same bed. This need to share body heat, along with the constant furniture-chopping, Nathan’s superb cooking, and above all, the intoxicating atmosphere, thick with stories, bring uncle and niece (who may actually – it’s too complicated to explain – only be cousins) together sexually.
But something, again unexplained, drives them apart in the end. It may be Nathan’s chronic aloneness, or it may be Nina’s bitterness about her father’s disappearance. It is not, in any case, a fairy-tale conclusion – just the opposite.
The title of In Babylon refers to Jewish history, of course, and so does the book’s epitaph, from the socialist historian Isaac Deutscher: “Trees have roots; Jews have legs.” It was in their Babylonian captivity that the Jews became cosmopolitan -- the first of the many experiences of anguish and exile that have made them, as creators and bearers of culture, supreme benefactors of the West. Jewish history illustrates the power of memory, story, and family over exile, cruelty, and loss. Within that immeasurably rich cycle of stories, this splendidly accomplished novel will take its place.