THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM by Marek Halter; translated by Lowell Bair (Henry Holt: $19.95; 722 pp.)
“The Book of Abraham” comes to us from France in a lucid translation, and with high praise from Le Monde and Le Matin. At first glance, it would appear that Marek Halter has set himself an impossible task: to dramatize the life story of one family over a period of 2,000 years, in a direct line of descent. Yet the novel is so entirely credible and moving that the reader comes out at the end of the 700-page epoch feeling that he may have encountered a classic in the tradition of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” or Laxness’ “Independent People.”
What is it that Halter is attempting to accomplish in this saga? An unfolding of man’s fate as exemplified by the family of Abraham the Scribe, who flees Jerusalem in AD 70 as the city is at last conquered by the Roman legions and the Temple burns; down to Abraham the Printer (a modern version of the scribe), who prints his last copy of Yediers (News) as the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto are annihilated after their long, fierce stand against the Nazis.
Though his research and documentation are unassailable, Halter writes as a novelist, poet and Biblical scholar rather than a historian. In spite of the wars, revolts, genocides and plagues that appear to be the inheritance of humanity, the entire book is a paean of praise to the Almighty, regardless of which religion is invoking His name.
The device Halter uses to hold these several hundred generations of one family together is an ingenious one. It is The Scroll, begun by the original Abraham to recount the trials of his People, handed down, faithfully augmented by generation after generation of scribes and printers, and preserved, miraculously.
The primary accomplishment of “The Book of Abraham” is that its succeeding generations, men, women and children, come alive. The reader identifies with them, participates in their young love and marriage, the preservation of their faith, their struggles as an alien people to achieve lives of meaning while surrounded by hostile forces: Abraham, Judith, Elijah, Absalom, Samueli, Sarah. . . . We suffer with them, rejoice, die, survive.
Halter’s descriptive powers are so vivid that we, the reader, see, feel, smell, touch the ramparts and the earth of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Rome . . . all the way across the Near East and Europe to Warsaw in 1943. Listen to one prose poem:
Carthage was a dazzling city. The Romans had planned it to be enormous, monumental, unforgettable, so that it would make a deep impression on all those they had conquered. Instead of ramparts, it was surrounded by a ring of gardens, villas, olive groves, and vineyards. As soon as the newcomers set foot on the dock, they were caught up in a bewildering swarm of people speaking different languages, not only Latin and Greek, but also Berber and a language that sounded like Hebrew. In the oppressive heat, with that whirlwind of races, customs, and beliefs, Carthage was Babel....
This is a daring novel. Even a long-time practitioner of the special art of the historical or biographical novel sits back in awe. Not only has Halter created a family which comes down in hereditary sequence for 2,000 years of siege, embattlement and enforced exile, but he has also interjected passages of autobiography, the tale of his own travels, adventures, mishaps and inspirations in searching out the descendants of Abraham. Yet his personal story is neither irrelevant nor obtrusive; for he too is a lineal descendant of the scribes and printers who preceded him. The Halters can be traced back to the 15th Century as printers with Gutenberg in Strasbourg.
Can a novel logically hold one family (a religion, a race, a culture, an ethic) together in a readable form? Yes, in Halter’s case, because he has created an architectural structure in which each chapter has its designated and useful function in achieving the true novel form. Even the most cataclysmic events are done in vivid color, poetic surges.
This is not the kind of political science fiction that is to be gulped down mindlessly. It is to be savored: the rise of the Christian faith, Charlemagne, the love story of Lublin, life with the nomads in the mountains of Algeria, Paris, Constantinople, Strasbourg, Odessa, a hundred fascinating locales. Shot through the narrative are memorable quotes from the Torah, the Gospel, folk wisdom of all peoples. They are germane to the ongoing plot and light up the pages like polished emeralds.
MacKinlay Kanter, author of “Long Remember” and “Andersonville” said in a Library of Congress lecture in 1957, “The term ‘historical novel’ has a dignity of its own and should be applied only to those works wherein a deliberate attempt has been made to re-create the past.”
Marek Halter has not only faithfully re-created the past, he has also envisaged the future. He has every right to do so, for he has spent much of his life fighting for civilized rights, inside the fire zone, in the civil and national wars for religious and political freedom.
What about the critic’s inherent right to carp, to demonstrate his superior knowledge? Well, there is an occasional line of dialogue that might be dispensed with; and a sometime overemphasis on man’s inhumanity to man. But Halter makes one reviewer proud of the sublime art of literature.