To approach Youval Shimoni’s A Room — a dense, stubborn, daunting, exhilarating masterpiece — let’s first hold up a mirror to this line from T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker” and use the reverse as a reading strategy.
In this novel’s end is a sense of its beginning — a key to understanding the themes and meanings threading from the first page to the last of Shimoni’s novel, which was first published in Hebrew in 1999.
If we start with the third and final section, “The Throne,” we find a way to understand all the rest — that section is a Borgesian tale of the futile attempts of the followers of a god named Huan to decide upon a proper monument to honor their god’s inexpressible, overwhelming reality.
The monument’s concept — a vast image of Huan spreading across swaths of land, across forests, glaciers, continents — becomes the subject of dizzying disagreements among researchers, quarrymen, and followers. Proposals for the monument — the image’s actual execution — get rejected in an intense collective confusion. Practical and philosophical disputes paralyze the action and decision-making.
The story ends, finally, not with the monument’s creation but with a reflection on humanity’s powerlessness, an image of the world as a tiny grain:
… it is beyond the bounds of possibility that it is on the face of this crumb, which was blown in the air swirling here and there—and from which on occasion the scent of his breath still arises, though ages and eons have already since passed—that we live.
That phrase “beyond the bounds of possibility” is a sentiment that William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon would surely appreciate — in fact, so much affinity exists between the works of Shimoni and these two writers that A Room has been likened to The Recognitions and Gravity’s Rainbow. Critics often place Shimoni in the same group as Etgar Keret, Gadi Taub, Avraham Heffner, and other creators of what have been called “novels of the contemporary extreme.”
In the case of A Room, these extremes include Shimoni’s narrative strategies (long parenthetical digressions, repetitive phrasings, a refusal to label everything and everyone for easy identification) as well as the way he challenges conventional notions of truth and fact in religion, art, filmmaking, and crime.
In the novel’s opening section, “The Lamp,” two plots weave together — the filming of a short instructional film at an army base in the Negev and the investigation of a murder that happened right under the noses of the army actors and the film crew.
Both efforts — the film and the investigation — are attempts at knowing something, at establishing facts, but as Shimoni shows, the linear quality of these activities is continually undermined and disrupted by narrative shifts, by the changing perspectives of the characters.
The murder itself is a horrible one — a man burned to death in a massive bonfire — and an investigator is brought in to solve it. He seems to think the key is in the film, and he studies it hoping to find something, some little clue, Antonioni-style, a little hint in the background that just might help him find his perp.
His objective is laid out clearly by his boss’s nagging secretary, who hounds him on the phone in the middle of the night to remind him to “get to the bottom of things fast. A: what happened exactly. B: who’s the guilty party. And C: good night to him in his bed, because he’s sleeping only with it now …”
To make the investigator’s circumstances more stressful, the room where he reviews the short film is dark and claustrophobic, and the weather outside is uncomfortable (“now the hot dry days return so fast that it seems like only a month ago that he placed the fan back in storage”).
But his efforts are, finally, so secondary to Shimoni’s interests that we never even learn his name.
We do learn much about the actors and movie crew, however, including: Schechter, the film’s frustrated, brooding director; the chatty, pompous soldier-actor nicknamed Miki Le Mic, who can’t help spouting Shakespeare every chance he gets; the master sergeant Gidi, who commands the group (and serves as cameraman); and two young actresses, Kinneret and Na’ama, recently conscripted and serving in the troupe.
“My father at his age gets sent to the occupied territories,” grumbles one medic, irritated at how this group fulfills their military service, “and this is what these guys get to do.”
In long digressions we learn about their lives, their particular sorrows and nostalgia for their past — in Schechter’s case, for instance, we feel his private misery at being a maker of information films, not a creator of great art — and we experience lively moments among the crew and actors as they prepare to shoot scenes. “Actors ready?” Schechter asks at one point, to which Miki responds:
“No,” answered the actor. “Just a minute.” He was still looking at his reflection in the window after taking off his wig as if to greet himself. He left the wig in his hand and contemplated it with a thoughtful gaze. “O skull,” he said to it dolefully, “you had a tongue, and could sing once, and now you are the property of a lady of eminence,” he put it back on and smoothed down its strands. “Hamlet,” he said with his red lips.
“Another recitation about death?” asked Kinneret.
“That’s life,” answered the actor. To his right the lamp flickered for a moment with all its globes, and the lighting man, who approached the wall, hit the plug with the palm of his hand.
“For that you went to study acting?” Kinneret asked. On her right Na’ama removed the velvet ribbon that tied her hair back and wore it around her wrist as a bracelet.
“I went so I could stand up in front of people and move them,” answered the actor. “Make them laugh, make them angry, it doesn’t matter what, the main thing is to touch them.”
Such exchanges not only suggest Shimoni’s attitude to his readers — “the main thing is to touch them” — but they also have the quality of real moments, heard and recorded, rather than scripted exchanges needed to merely push the story’s plot along. They are delightful to read; Shimoni has a wonderful ear for dialogue.
Communication among the troupe members is often garbled; ideas get misheard. When the soundman says he’s checking the volume level, Miki looks at him and asks “Valium?” At another point, Na’ama complains that the camera will show an unflattering spot on her face, but Gidi assures her, “Believe me … even if I zoomed right in you wouldn’t see anything, don’t you trust me?”
All of these exchanges remind us of the relativity of truth and fact, even in the small details of life — of the difficulties of being certain of anything, even when you “zoom in.”
And the same result, unfortunately, is true for the investigator — no matter how much he zooms in, the simple ABCs of the crime elude him (and us) until “The Lamp’s” very end. Though the story of an investigation would hold center stage in another book, Shimoni relegates it to paragraphs of tiny type that interrupt the narrative. It isn’t very important, just like the investigator himself, whom Shimoni likens to “those athletes, the ones who waste years of their lives just to take a few stupid seconds off some sprint of a few meters …”
Truth proves similarly elusive — and relative — in the novel’s second section, “The Drawer,” which introduces a new story and new characters in contemporary Paris.
“The Drawer” follows the efforts of a small group — an old clochard, two prostitutes, and a painter — as they plan a painting in tribute to one of the great Renaissance paintings of Christ’s crucifixion.
The idea of this homage comes from the narrator, an Israeli painter, who, in his art school, has been “assigned to pay homage to one of the great artists and brought with [him] a drunk beggar and two old women.”
But which great artist should he celebrate? He thinks about several before finally settling on Andrea Mantegna and his famous painting, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ.
The narrator deeply admires the utter humanity of the painting, which shows Jesus in the hours after his removal from the cross but before the Resurrection, his legs foreshortened by the perspective Mantegna chooses, the nail holes in Christ’s feet unimpressive and seeming only like “tiny holes, which, with Mantegna, looked like burst blisters from all that walking on the clouds or on the ripples that the wind raised in the water …”
To the painter, Mantegna’s scene is free of the vulgar eroticism he finds in Caravaggio’s painting The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. Thomas’s finger, he says, hardly concealing his disgust, “reached out to the open lips of the wound that was already cleaned of the blood and that recalled, even before you had drunk even one sip, the shaved lips of something else.”
And, then, to break the tension caused by that unsettling thought, Shimoni has someone else interject, “who would touch an open wound today? That jerk saint Thomas should have done it with a surgeon’s glove.”
The painter and his models sneak into a hospital morgue late at night while another prostitute distracts the solitary guard at the front desk; they plan to enact their homage using one of the body drawers in the morgue.
Along the way, as they head for the morgue’s refrigeration room, our narrator gives us historical glosses on art, how past masters inserted themselves into some of their paintings — “Botticelli accompanied the Magi, Rosselli joined in the last supper” — and how the morgue causes the narrator to think of Rembrandt, who “immortalized the anatomy lessons of Doctor Tulp and Doctor Deiman as they dissected the bodies of murderers.”
Our narrator aspires, like Schechter in “The Lamp,” to make high art; unlike Schechter, though, he seems actually poised on the brink of achieving it. “One day,” he thinks, proudly, “tourists will come here to see where we sat when we were young.”
As the painter readies his palette, as the models move into their places — the old clochard, who plays the role of the dead Christ, lies in one of the empty drawers while the two women settle by his side, in the positions of the Virgin Mary and Saint John in Mantegna’s painting — we realize that the scene they are about to create preceded one of the most important events in the past 2,000 years. Christian civilization hinges upon the truth of the Resurrection; but Mantegna, and his modern admirer, give us that terrifyingly tense period in the minutes and hours before it happened — when Christ’s mother and his followers waited anxiously and Jesus was no more than a corpse. Would he rise from the dead? Was he really God’s son, or was he just like the rest of us?
“The Drawer” closes with an unexpected surprise, a glorious resurrection of sorts, and this moment underscores the fragility of all truth and knowledge — but readers will have to read Shimoni’s book to share in his vision.
Suffice to say, “The Drawer’s” meditation on art, faith, and truth serves as an ideal bridge into the final section, “The Throne,” which, mentioned earlier, shows us the inability of people to really agree upon anything, especially when it comes to religious faith.
A Room is a gift to the reading world — so is its transmittal to English-speaking audiences thanks to Michael Sharp’s considerable translation skills and the efforts of the Dalkey Archive to make this book available. A Room reminds us that there are so many powerful narrative styles that never make it onto the usual best-seller lists — there, on those lists, you usually find novels in forms that are easily digestible, very conventional: the fictional equivalent of canned chicken soup.
But here, in Shimoni’s prose, we’re reminded of all the possibilities that narratives still possess — the catch and release of details, the fragmentary quality of perception and understanding, the playfulness, even with serious subject matter. (A Room shares some characteristics with another unique, powerful novel — The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov, Thomas McGonigle’s tale of a dying Bulgarian leader’s last thoughts, also published by Dalkey Archive. Read both.)
A senior editor at Am Oved publishers and a creative writing teacher based in Israel, Shimoni also happens to be a defender of narrative possibilities on behalf of other writers. Recently, he appeared in the Israeli news, speaking out against the country’s Education Ministry for omitting a novel from the national high school curriculum that includes a love story between a Jew and an Arab (Shimoni is the editor of that novel).
A Jerusalem Post article in January describes how Shimoni told a committee that the Ministry is uneasy with the story because it humanizes the Arab character rather than relying on the simplistic caricature of a terrorist. The Ministry probably worries, he says, clearly indignant, that the novel’s rounded characterization may make some Israeli youths actually feel sympathy for that character … and, maybe, even for all Arabs.
“True, it might confuse youth, especially when we are white as snow and they are jet black,” he says, quoted in the Post. “So should we only read the Bible? The writers of the Bible did not bother to purify their heroes.”
Nick Owchar is a communications director at Claremont McKenna College and the former deputy book editor of the Los Angeles Times. He blogs regularly at The Call of the Siren.