Friday, April 2, 2010

Water for Elephants, In the Heart of the Ocean, Vendetta

Continuing my return foray into Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series, I picked up Vendetta, the second novel.  This novel brings in another theme which will return sporadically through the series, the conflict between justice and politics.  Zen is brought in to investigate a murder case that seems open and shut.  But the alleged perpetrator would be politically embarrassing, so Zen is sent to "investigate" and find someone else to scapegoat.

Of course he finds that in fact someone else committed the crime, and that person is arrested, but, ironically, his success is just seen as further proof of his ability to manufacture a perfect scapegoat.  On the other hand, in a sort of double irony, justice is served in the end, because the guilty person is actually arrested and given a show trial, even if it's for all the wrong reasons.  It reminded me a bit of A Long Finish, in which Zen actually arrests the wrong person (unknowingly), but reflects to himself that it doesn't matter because the suspect's family will get him off anyhow, while the actual villain of that piece ends of dying of rabies.

I've been slowly making my way through Agnon's In the Heart of Ocean (Bil'vav yamim), and I'm not quite sure what to make of it yet.  The story is about a group of Polish Jews who make aliyah in the late 19th century.  There are originally 9 men and their wives, and they take on a tenth man, Hananiya, to make a minyan.  Hananiya gets left behind at one of the ports, but it seems that he flies on ahead riding on a big kerchief.  Which is exactly the sort of thing that makes the story so interesting -- it's a sort of magic realism from before there was such a category, and filtered through a Jewish perspective.

Agnon tells us the whole story through the eyes and the language of his characters.  When they have a discussion about the ways in which Satan tried to stop them from making aliyah, Satan's presence is taken as a given; he even talks to some of the characters.  It's hard to tell if this is supposed to be taken literally or symbolically, and I think that in the end it doesn't matter so much.  These characters live their lives surrounded by symbols, and they think symbolically.  (Eretz Israel symbolizes hope and a new beginning, the sea symbolizes difficulty, and so on).

Agnon's Hebrew usage is worth noting.  In keeping with these characters, he throws in a lot of Aramaicisms.  (Of course, the actual characters would not have been speaking Hebrew, but the Hebrew they speak is so foreign from actual spoken Hebrew in many ways that it creates a distancing effect.)  When they do actually speak Hebrew -- it's the only common language they have when they meet some Sephardic Jews in Turkey -- they call it The Holy Tongue instead of Hebrew.  Again, it's a distancing effect, reminding us of the mindset of these people, for whom every word of the Bible is holy.

I also read Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, and I thought it was okay, but really literature lite.  The setting, a circus in the 1930s, was interesting, and managed to pull me along about halfway through the book, but after that the flat characters pretty much palled on me.

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