Biblical Paraphrase and Hummus: Conversation with Dror Burstein on “Muck”




MUCK, THE LATEST novel by Israeli writer Dror Burstein to appear in English translation — in this case, a dexterous, canny one by the poet Gabriel Levin — is not easily described. Among the residents of its battered world are an elderly book critic known to thrash young writers bloody, talking dogs, child-peddlers, blind falafel prodigies, security guards watching over imperial plunder at the silent edge of empire, a secret police operative posing as an angel in cheap plastic wings, and an elegant classical pianist who was kidnapped in central Europe and brought against his will to his home country, where he rules as king from his childhood bedroom. Also, history’s largest bowl of hummus. That’s a lot to think about well before the fact that the book is a close rewriting of several key passages from the Hebrew Bible.

Actually, so much of the book is derived from biblical narrative that when I reached out to Burstein by email recently, he told me, “I think the genre of Muck is not exactly a novel, but what is called Rewritten Bible or Biblical Paraphrase.” The novel retells the story of the biblical prophet Jeremiah, against the backdrop of the political developments described in Jeremiah, Lamentations, and II Kings — which, if you know your Bible (or think about the word “jeremiad”), does not bode well for our protagonist, his king, or his city.

Jeremiah is in many ways a fitting choice. He is probably the most historically knowable character in the Jewish Bible, a strong contender for having written not only the book that bears his name, but also Deuteronomy, the Torah’s final installment, which describes itself as having been “found” in Jerusalem’s temple. Jeremiah’s an anguished character, who endures his civilization’s precipitous decline under a corrupt and ineffectual government. He tells his neighbors they’re arousing their god’s wrath, which goes unheeded, and he sees his city burned as a consequence. And like Burstein, he’s a scholar, trained in the interpretation of law, making his name as a poet.

I reached out to the author, who lives in Tel Aviv, by email. The below conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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IAN DREIBLATT: At its core, Muck is very much a retelling of the events leading up to the Babylonian exile, as they’re narrated in the Bible. Where did that idea come from?

DROR BURSTEIN: I wish I knew. All I can say is that I have been long interested in Jeremiah, as a person more than as a prophet. I think I was intrigued by him because I sensed his personality as one that actually existed, one I could have understood had he lived today. I cannot say the same for, say, Moses or Abraham. At some point I had an idea to import Jeremiah into the present and see what happens to him. Can he speak in the context of modern Hebrew? Will anyone listen? But also, what does he do for a living? Who are his parents? What does he eat? Bringing a prophet into the contemporary world is a nice idea, but answering all of these questions, and many more, is the stuff of the actual work of writing.

Despite its biblical narrative, Muck is shot through with concerns you’ve examined in your other books — family and lineage, astronomy and geology, the minds and rights of animals. These come up in Kin and Netanya — your two earlier novels in English — and I imagine in Pictures of Meat, which I can’t read until it gets translated. What are your most consistent interests?

I think I have a consistent interest in reality. Which consists more or less of matter and energy of all sorts: outer space, human and nonhuman creatures (viruses and bacteria included), vegetation (mushrooms included).

As for your first point, it’s true. I guess I keep painting the same picture, only the frame changes. I feel like a flame which catches a different candle every once and a while — some thick, some thin, some white, some red, et cetera. The drainage periods are of a flame that cannot find a candle to catch.

You’re hardly just repeating yourself — though in Muck you are, in a very direct sense, repeating aspects of a biblical narrative. Maybe it’s history that’s repeating itself?

To a certain extent, there are geopolitical similarities between Israel and ancient Judea. Nevertheless, for me, this is the least interesting part of writing, as it seems almost obvious. There’s no way around it if your hero is Jeremiah. Although the novel is local in many senses, it is also about every human culture with corruption, aggressiveness, greed, and fear, and every person who speaks against that, with almost no one caring to listen.

But nothing can repeat itself in the exact sense. Or perhaps only music can do it. Philip Glass’s fifth piano étude is an important piece of the soundtrack to Muck. This music, above all, repeats itself.

You’ve got me listening. Certainly it’s unhopeful music, fit for a dismal fate. But while Muck is in a sense a repetition, it’s not stylistically repetitive the way the étude is.

Repetitive prose has its charm. I used to like reading books like that, Thomas Bernhard especially. Today I’m not so sure about it. If I find myself writing in this manner, I stop.

It doesn’t take a prophet to foresee trouble for the Judea of your novel, a blundering and compromised state, too invested in its increasingly antiquated future to perceive the urgencies of its beleaguered present. I have the feeling you’re “contending with the past” here — is that a fair description?

I think of the relationship between our present world and the ancient one more in terms of a continuous metamorphosis. I mean, I don’t think most people learn from their ancient fore-parents, their history. I’m not sure there’s much “contending” with the past here. As far as our leaders are concerned, they are driven by certain basic urges and needs, which haven’t changed so much.

I really like your Jeremiah — he’s a sweet kid when we meet him, and he greets his fate admirably. To flesh out a vision of Jeremiah is to animate a person’s suffering, on some level. That seems difficult!

That’s life; suffering is part of the deal. The First Noble Truth. For Jeremiah, the “on some level” is a bit of an understatement. You touch something very interesting. If one doesn’t wish to write kitsch — or, to put it differently, if one strives toward reality — depictions of suffering are inevitable. Your question helps me understand why I feel somewhat alienated toward this book. I wish I could live and write in a place in which prophets are not needed. Another planet, I guess.

Speaking of suffering, the sudden death of Jeremiah’s younger sister is an important part of his backstory — even on a family level, his life is marked by tragedy. That’s not something mentioned in the biblical narrative; where did that come from?

I realized long ago that for me, there’s always some continuity between one book and the next. As I said, I keep painting the same picture. So, the sister is a continuation of a character from a novel I published four years before Muck. There’s always some unfinished business in a book, and I try to make up for what one book missed in the next one. Or perhaps I just need some fuel from my reserves to ignite a new drive.

The earlier book is Sun’s Sister, right? Are you done with the character now?

Yes, she’s died twice now. That’s more than enough.

Jeremiah’s family is complicated. One of my favorite scenes in the book is the short one in which his mother pulls out a secret idol she keeps of a female divinity and quietly venerates it. How do you see her faith?

Israelites have always worshiped many gods — otherwise, there wouldn’t be such a need for so many prophets. Jeremiah’s mother is just an ordinary woman in this respect. I don’t think her son would be outraged had he known about her small statuette. It’s almost like keeping a painting on your wall today and paying daily attention to it. The damage in Muck is done not by people who believe in other gods, but by people who believe too much in their own egos.

But wait: the biblical Jeremiah does decry Israelite devotion to “the Queen of Heaven,” and other apparently popular pagan divinities. He has kind of a hang-up about it!

You are perfectly right. I got carried away with my own rendering of Jeremiah. Of course, he would have gone berserk had he known of his mother’s outrageous idolatry. I understand now that she keeps her idol in a can mainly because of her son. That’s the risk in adopting an existing character. You tend to make them similar to yourself to some extent.

Another fascinating character is the literary critic Broch. He’s a sort of protean villain; his role shifts across the book, but he’s never good news. How do you understand his role in the story?

He doesn’t have a specific biblical analogue. You might say he represents the public, the world that won’t listen, but in a more active way. He doesn’t just refuse to listen, he actively tries to eliminate some voices. In a more practical sense, maybe he’s a manifestation of my own inner voice, trying to convince me to stay out of this absurd travail of prose writing.

As a poet, Jeremiah courts his favor somewhat. Your send-up of poetry scenedom is pretty spot-on. You certainly don’t seem too sanguine about the writing and publishing landscape you’re depicting.

There are some magnificent writers here, not to mention rest of the world. But generally speaking, literature as an industry needs rethinking. I don’t really want to get into this, but I can say that I don’t set foot in any of the big bookstores in Israel — spaces from which almost everything I adore about literature is absent. I have a fantasy of opening my own bookshop, in which every single book sold will be my own private and specific recommendation. I think it’s awful, selling books you detest or don’t care about. It’s really unethical. And this is the “natural” way of doing business in the book trade. I wouldn’t sell you a poisonous sandwich, would I?

I hope not! I once heard you say at the World Voices Festival, “We all know poetry is the only thing worth writing.”

Well, novels are necessary: you can’t express everything with poetry. Historical events, for example, are unfit for a haiku or even a whole book of haiku. But that’s a necessity, not an ideal form of writing.

Do we have a distorted view of you in the United States, because you’re primarily a poet, and what we’re reading here are the novels? Do you prefer writing one or the other?

I think that my best writing period was while teaching for a semester in Worcester, Massachusetts, in fall 2013. Removed from the outside reality of Israel, I’d thought I was going to finish Muck there. It turned out I didn’t even touch it. Instead, I took a lot of trips around New England, returning especially often to Walden Pond. It all ended up in a book of poetry that was published in the same year as the original Hebrew edition of Muck. I had to write the novel, but it didn’t give me much pleasure. I wanted to write those poems at Walden or Cape Cod. I’d rather have Thoreau as a friend than Jeremiah, and I’d prefer living in Concord to Jerusalem. But I guess I’m more useful here.

You’ve said that “the genre of Muck is not exactly a novel, but what is called Rewritten Bible or Biblical Paraphrase.” What’s the difference?

The concept of retelling a biblical narrative was borrowed from ancient books that do just that, like the Book of Jubilees from the second century BCE. What’s special about this genre is that it frees you from having to be the sole inventor of the whole plot. It gives you a clear frame in advance, then lets you find your own way. You know the ending, more or less, from the start, or at least you think you know where you’re headed. After writing a few novels in which I had to invent everything myself, rewriting another text came as quite a relief!

If there was some relief in not having to invent a whole plot, you surely paid for it with the high stakes created by your subject matter, right?

The stakes are always high in novel-writing. This was still slightly easier than building the whole thing from scratch.

Read anything great lately, besides 2,200-year-old biblical retellings?

Oh yes, a lot. I’ve just finished Roland Barthes’s The Preparation of the Novel, translated into English by Kate Briggs. A must-read for anyone in the profession of prose writing. I was amazed and delighted to see Barthes extensively discuss Japanese haiku as a preliminary to novel-writing. Another great book is The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell, a biological meditation focused on one square meter of forest floor in Tennessee. Meticulously observed and very beautifully written. I wish I had the time to translate it into Hebrew.

The English translation of Muck is wonderful — nimble and resonant, managing a kind of code-switching that I imagine is more present in the original. Do biblical Hebrew and modern Hebrew bump up against each other in the book?

Yes. Gabriel Levin did great work. Actually, he suggested translating it into English in the first place. In the original, there is a continuous mixture of biblical and modern Hebrew, sometimes in the same sentence. The biblical phrases are not marked, and I invented some pseudo-biblical verses here and there too. I tried using biblical quotations that I thought would be intelligible to a present-day reader. It couldn’t have been easy to reproduce this idea, two layers of language merging into one textual flow.

Could we talk for a second about … hummus? Hummus plays an important role in this book — not only because it sets the stage for one of the most jaw-dropping events in the story, but because characters are often seen eating it. Not to put too fine a point on things, hummus has a reputation for both connecting and dividing the cultures of the Middle East. In Muck, it seems almost to be a kind of counter-muck — an exalted, nourishing goop. I confess, I have no question.

You’ve got a fine short essay on the symbolism of chickpeas here. I’m serious. Hummus is my favorite dish and has been for almost 40 years now. I reckon I’ve consumed tons of it. The scene in the book that features a “World’s Largest Hummus Bowl” competition, which might sound absurd, was taken from an actual ad I saw at a (hummus) restaurant in Abu Gosh, near Jerusalem. I mean, such a competition actually took place, some years ago. There is an official Guinness record for this. What’s more, after Israel had set the world record, the Lebanese overshadowed the Israeli achievement, weighing in at a mere four tons, with their own 11.5-ton bowl. You can read this all here. I’m not making it up.

What’s the best hummus you’ve ever had? Desert island hummus?

There was a place in Jaffa owned by Mr. Mustafa Kalboni. Unfortunately, he passed away, and his son, Sultan, embraced a religious life and hasn’t continued the business. I can testify that he was capable, culinarily speaking.

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Ian Dreiblatt is a poet, translator, and musician who lives in Brooklyn. His chapbook how to hide by showing in the age of being alone with the universe is recently out from above/ground press, and he is among the translators of Pavel Arsenev’s Reported Speech, out now from Cicada Press.


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