By Joshua Cohen (Starcherone Books, 2008)
A Heaven of Others, Joshua Cohen’s second novel and fourth book of fiction, is a horrifying, terrifying, and instructive account of the wrong heaven in another’s shoes. Real shoes, that is, left forever in a real river of honey following abduction by eagles and a missed tête-à-tête with “the man named Mohammed”—the only one, it turns out, who might be able to bail our narrator, Jonathan Schwarzstein, of 37 Tchernichovsky Street, Jerusalem, out of a surreal and macabre but theologically accurate wasteland of a Muslim afterlife, and restore him to the heaven of his faith or choice. Though he is only ten when a Muslim boy his age explodes him on the street outside of a shoe store in latter-day Israel, by the time we hear him speak, from heaven, he is no longer a child but a child of eternity, “maturing to infinity,” and beyond and beyond, amen:
He hugged me I don’t know why I hug him back in return. Us, we hug tightly. We fall on each other. We feel for one and for others we fall. We feel. And we hug. Their eyes shut, they squeeze — just like lemons. And then they explode. Mind the seeds.
And so, with a bleating of radio goat voices naming the names of the dead and the oink-oink of pigs as heaven-bound traffic (drawn faithfully by painter Michael Hafftka), we are ushered up a shoe store ladder into the heaven of virgins and buffets as promised on the homiletic “Islamofascist” VHS tapes and cassettes you can buy on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn . . . No, not quite. A kind of dramatic escape into suspenseful anti-climax follows as, perhaps, in the Jewish tradition there is really no such thing as heaven and certainly no description, only a hopeful and equally vague notion of olam haba—a later, post-rabbinic introduction to Jewish theology that promised the Jewish Diaspora a messianic future in a perfected “world to come.” Jonathan, who has survived so much already, comes to this heaven to endure, to remember, to doubt, and to gossip; to expound his opinions on prayer, beet salad, tourism, and personhood; and to tell us who he was while he lived: who we are or were. His father is a piano tuner, his mother the Queen. He may or may not have had a brother named David who may or may not live with a “Movieperson,” a male lover in Hollywood, and this brother’s mother—Jonathan’s father’s first wife—may or may not have died of breast cancer; her tumor, in Cohen’s sincerely stupefying description, metastasizing into the K’aba or merely the black stone of secular helplessness, the speechless family all circling and circling around: “In the morning it had lost its roundness, by then it had further dulled off to become this hulking huge big black square As hard as rockstone Aba he was pacing Around and around and glancing at nervously as if it had just fallen through the ozone on down from space . . .”
But if Cohen is not Philip Roth, he is also not Shalom Auslander or Etgar Keret, and this is not yet another voyeuristic novel in which heaven is an excuse for irony, empty parables, amusement parks, or some gratuitous tour of the fantastic in rollercoaster magical-realist prose. A Heaven of Others is closer to Bernard Malamud’s late book God’s Grace or the mythical tales of Amos Tutuola in its treatment of another reality: sincere, serious, tender, American, an allegory maybe, but never merely clever, never a superficial phantasmagoria, and never only a vehicle for something else. In fact, as soon as Jonathan gets to heaven he tries to find his way back. And so would you, if heaven consisted not of milk and honey but trees overripe with musical virgin fruit, camel caravans drawing illegible maps in the sand with their hooves, and a valley of nails in which a snake—instead of the Prophet—offers to be your guide. Having come to some unspeakable realization, exhausted, Jonathan gives up and begins his commentary, at once to explain and atone: “I never entered into the Valley of Nails not even as unshod as I was, and because I never entered into the Valley of Nails between the Two Mountains that might have been clouds after all I never had my Salaam answered, neither did I then truly seek the man named Mohammed [. . .] When it came to the ultimate sacrifice, I demurred. When pain entered into the world, my dream exited, flying. When a single choice was offered me I chose another.” Here the book turns to exegesis and metaphor, Hafftka’s paintings growing darker and wilder as the novel grows tighter and clearer, more humbled, more quiet—as if now it knows what it means to say, and what it means to say it: “[. . .] I cleave to this identity for and only for the memory—mine—of my Aba and the Queen. For them how I loved them. And for the expectations they once had for my own memory. Expectations becoming love in their ripening. A memory to be had by others. Becoming. Others I never made in an image I felt becoming the world.”
Like the doomed atmosphere of Prague’s old Jewish Quarter in Paul Leppin’s short story collection Others’ Paradise, the very boundaries of existence at any stage are the subject of myth, and existential ambivalence a form of theology; life is a kind of prayer; and the Jew is a feverish metaphor that bears the brunt of evolution. Now that Leppin’s seedy and labyrinthine world is gone along with Leppin’s own peculiar syphilitic paranoia and the comfort of personal enemies, we are left—Cohen seems to imply—with a stranger and more relative doubt almost as sure as certainty, much as Jonathan is lost and knows he is lost in a heaven he can only intuit. In this utter awareness Cohen offers us perhaps a pure, holy regret for what seems lost forever, but lost only to us, he reminds—the survivors: as the heart of his book is an idea-as-doctrine he calls Maturing to Infinity, or growing ever and ever, a metamorphosis abandoned by theology and teleology both. (Though as Cohen, a writer so aware of etymology would appreciate, Jonathan’s lack of a telos, or end, simultaneously makes him teleos, or perfect—as horrifying as that perfection might be.) The victim is a sacrifice at once trapped and free in his eternal victimhood, forced to change unrecognized, uncounted, and unaccounted for, while at the same time mourned on earth, consecrated as a martyr, and remembered forever as the 10-year-old boy he no longer resembles or knows.
In this vision of endless change above and beyond tradition, however, we may recognize Cohen as Jonathan as an outsider in Israel, and also Cohen as an outsider among his own in America. A heaven of others: the poem not of militant secularism but individual doubt, agnosticism, or Agnon’s—gnosticism, as S.Y. Agnon, too, wrote of tradition amidst modernity and was influenced by German literature and reflected his heart’s philosophy in a necessarily new language; though in the untranslated epigram, Cohen chooses the Hebrew-language poet Saul Tchernichovsky as his shadow Virgil, and the poem “Levivot,” or “Pancakes,” which tells the story of a boy’s trajectory from unquestioning obedience and acceptance—the untranslatable egel melumad, literally “a learned calf” and also the taunt for a yeshiva student—to freedom and, consequently, sacrilege: “having no weapon in its hands/It will cleave to all its persecutors forbid.” Notice the double meaning of this English translation: cleave in the sense of to split and to separate, as well as to join together—“Cleave, which in American means both To rend and To adhere,” as Cohen does, in his faith and faithlessness, holiness and profanity. “In this heaven as in any heaven I am no longer a Jew. In this heaven as in any heaven I am no more a Jew than I’m not [. . .] To be forever estranged, even amid your own congregation, and to be forever wandering, even within your own encampment, and only because they make me a stranger, and only because they make me a wanderer, they who would be I only if, I who would be they only why [. . .]”
It is poignant and profound to refract one’s religious doubt this way through a religious mirror, brave to structure an epic novella around religious terrorism in which belief interrogates itself, through its own manifestations, which is something like God seeing himself in the passing surface he has created. Cohen engages his own religion in the terms of that religion, in its own language, which he recreates using myths—like wind-up Schulzian toys—cast in Semitic-syncretic mold, bursting with contradiction. Foreshadowed by writers like Kafka and Bruno Schulz, and poets like Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs, these myths are fashioned by Cohen out of the baffling vulgarity of modern life in order to make that life personal again and thus open to interpretation: bombs become seeded fruit and foliage a landscape of exploded nails; a pogrom joke in which a fictional shtetl dresses its animals in human clothes and returns to find it repopulated is turned into an allegory for the state of Israel, with Ray-Ban sunglasses. Though we may be far from home, tragedy is never far from humor. Like Beckett, after whose beat much of the rhythm is marching, Cohen manages to be serious and wry at the same time, ironic and sincere: “Remember that the dead cannot sacrifice. Never again! And, too, that it is not for the living to judge the sacrifices they are bound to make [. . .]” Never again is the slogan of Holocaust remembrance, the refrain of Yom Hazikaron, or the official Israeli Day of Remembrance, on which the last page records this book to have been finished.
Indeed, Cohen’s Israel is in part a Jewish literary graveyard: besides Tchernichovsky Street, there is Antschel’s Funeral Home—Antschel being the birth name of Paul Celan, author of the funereal Todesfuge—and references to Kafka, Haim Nahman Bialik, and a selection of Jewish religious sources from the Old Testament to folklore and legend abound. Still, Cohen finds room for Quranic exegetes, Muslim myths of the afterlife—the Jews become pigs as they ascend to heaven—and the composer Richard Barrett, who has set Celan’s poem “von hinter dem Schmerz” to music. Not quite the Western Lands, Cohen discovers Bialik’s desert, Emanuel Swedenborg’s heaven—and also Swedenborg’s desert, Bialik’s heaven—which is to say the book draws its language from the most expressive of Hebrew poetry and baroque Swedish religious philosophy to create in fiction a personal mythology, always attentive, always delimiting and defining, always unorthodox, but so steeped in its traditions that it reads as modern and classic as, say, Kafka’s account in Amerika of America. Only whereas Kafka wrote of one place he had never seen, Cohen, an American Jew, writes of two—making Israel foreign to Israel and heaven foreign to all except those with an intimate knowledge of German poetry, Hebrew scripture via the King James Bible, and 14th-century Muslim religious tracts, in the hope of bringing these loci to light anew and writing intelligently about subjects so familiar to us, at all. (It would be interesting to know, for example, how this book about latter-day terrorism might be received in Israel, where Cohen, though Jewish, would certainly be seen as an outsider in a local debate.) After the intimate and bittersweet homecoming of the virtuoso Laster’s showbiz Yiddish in his first novel, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, in which the aforementioned violin prodigy improvises a novel about his friend—the missing composer, survivor, and misanthrope Schneidermann—from the stage of Carnegie Hall as his cadenza, or solo, Cohen explored his other roots: the Europe and South Jersey of his immediate family, and the unsolved mysteries of the Hebrew alphabet (Aleph-Bet: An Alphabet for the Perplexed, again with Hafftka). While both books were departures from his modest first collection of stories, The Quorum, here, in his latest novel, linguistic and symbolic estrangement become a means to enlightenment—a ladder rather than a path, which, once climbed, leads to the dream of a dream, isolating the past, and epitomizing the present. The voice of reportage we trust to guide us through the Paradiso is even more guileless and haunting here, more alive in the memory of an unsuspecting boy, and so therefore more revealing of everything holy and unholy which we hold dear, despite: life, as Stanley Elkin says—death’s alternative.
And yet if A Heaven of Others is Cohen’s most political and topical book, it is also his best effort at pure storytelling, a tale as instructive as it is tall, an allusive novella in the voice of a poem with the power and richness of a full novel—and not the kind with a lot of dialogue in it. Like a sign upon the hand and between the eyes, Jonathan’s post-mortem account of his “Adventures in & Reflections on the Muslim Heaven” serves to remind us of what literature was once like before it was cast out of an amateur’s Eden and banished forever into the marketplace: a commentary, that is, in conversation with other literature, about their mutual meditations on the original Word—a dialogue in the form of a confession less flagellating than the famous self-interrogations of St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo. One of the great joys of this book, and one of its fortunes, is the transparency of its influences, the legibility of its inspiration. As the story of an individual in the modern world and beyond, the book eschews politics for a skeptical ethics based less in an abstract humanism than in the personal desire to choose the face by which society knows us: The only hope we can have in a world in which our very names make us targets is the hope of free expression, in word and deed; and as the state is only a continuous ruin, memory is the property of the one who remembers—though other victims be lost to television and forgotten by the world.
Perhaps nothing written since Kafka quite conveys the arbitrary cruelty and absurdity of a world such as this in the most proximate human terms, and the inner sense, or intuition, of a soul that mediates between. In fact, now that so much Jewish literature has been written and rewritten again in English, now that we have so many authors and classics, it is all the more rare and inspiring that Cohen, scandalously overlooked in America, especially by the Jewish literary community—the novel is timestamped almost four years ago, in 2004—continues to delve deeper and further with each book into an inherited terrain while making of that holy ground these beautifully uncharted territories with their own maps and legends. (It did not come as a surprise that, according to his website, Cohen has just finished an 800-page novel about the last Jew on earth, called, blasphemously: Graven Imaginings.) “How did I get here, if I am still an I” Jonathan asks in the opening sentence, and is mocked in a kind of Yiddish by the narrator, who is himself: “He got here how he got here.” At once terrifying and singular and singularly important, A Heaven of Others repeats and channels the echo of that initial question, forcing us to see ourselves between destinies, between politics and political persuasions, and between answers themselves, to ask in fact who and what we really are: how did we get here, that is, if we are to remain an I?
Daniel Elkind is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn.