If Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud set in motion debates about Jewish traditions in America, Ruby Namdar sustains them in his new novel, The Ruined House. But his novel is in dialogue not only with these writers but, more importantly, the sacred Jewish texts of the ancient world that he employs to re-inscribe Judaism in modernity.
Irving Howe once noted that what Phillip Roth mined in his writing was a “thin personal culture,” a popular Judaism. Namdar, a secular Iranian Jew born in Israel and steeped in Jewish learning and traditions escapes such a judgment. A resident of Israel, and for several decades, New York, he is also the recipient of the prestigious Sapir prize in Israel for this novel first published in Hebrew. The novel, now translated by Hillel Halkin is new and strange. Though beautifully poetic, it is, at times, overwritten with description.
His protagonist, Andrew Cohen, a secular Jew, unwittingly bears meaning in his name—the Biblical priest was called in Hebrew, the kohen. Yet little has been passed down to him by his father who considered himself “an American” and “had no use for the Jewish traditions that struck him as an old World relic” (106). His son is, nevertheless, a successful professor of Comparative Literature and Culture at NYU, a fiftyish divorcee with an Asian-American girlfriend half his age, smug and complaisant in his trendy lifestyle and pleasures. But slowly, “the buoyancy of his ideas [and lifestyle that] kept him afloat”-- having been formed by a shallow “litany of objects” (17, 10) from material culture—collapses. The strange part of this novel then emerges as he tumbles over time into the horrors of daytime visions, daily nightmares and sleepless nights bathed in blood, urine, vomit, sweat and semen that emerge in scenes like plagues from an ancient world. Losing his grip, cut off from life, he has a breakdown.
Cohen does not rest easy in Namdar’s narration. His cool mornings and language blend and melt, at times, into the ancient texts of the high priest shadowing him throughout the novel. But he sees and hears none of this. His trip to Israel and sighting of the names “Goshen,” for example, where Israelites settled in Egypt, and “Bethel,” the site where Jacob dreamed of the ladder stretching up to heaven-- fail to alert him.. But the signs are there for the reader. To keep us on track, Namdar labels every day in the one year of life that he records with parallel western and Hebrew dates i.e. September 18, 2011 and the first of Tishrei 5762.
In presenting Cohen’s demise, Namdar—in an original stroke--interrupts his life at the end of each of the seven books of the novel. He presents pseudo pages of the Talmud and commentary--as if the actual text--a story of a High Priest and his assistant to provide a parallel perspective. Namdr accesses and juxtaposes classic texts like other modern writers who present characters in cultural counterpoint with modern values. James Joyce rescues Leopold Bloom, the ordinary ad man from obscurity presenting him against the backdrop of Homer’s Odyssey that endows his life journey with epic meaning; Derek Walcott’s Omeros does the same in a long poem of a Black Caribbean fisherman written in dialogue with Homer’s epic “where every line was erased” because of the history of colonialism in St. Lucia or Trinidad. Namdar presents Cohen’s demise against the rich backdrop of Jewish history, ritual and learning beginning with the burning and destruction of the Temple (70 CE). And he blends this with a detailed contemporary representation of the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
But Cohen’s journey is not only a Jewish one. He experiences the “transcendental homelessness” that Gyorgy Lukacs, the philosopher, points to in modern society. Cohen’s life is narrated and condensed into one year like the life of Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses and Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. His personal relationships sour; the domesticity of his life with his ex-wife and treasured daughters, collapses, and his mind becomes an inferno. Like the twin towers that shadow the end of the novel, everything reverberates with the destruction of the Temple. Even the voice of the preacher blasting from the NYC taxi radio warns of another tower, Babel, “and the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that its children of men had built” (84). And what remains is “only a whisper”— Namdar’s provocative whisper into the twenty-first century-- that “could be heard where once the ruined house stood” (511).
Ruby Namdar. The Ruined House, Trans. Hillel Halkin. Harper Perennial, 2018, 511 pp.
Buy on Amazon: