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BOOK REVIEW : ‘I Am the Clay’ Is a Heartfelt Potok Tale : I AM THE CLAY, <i> by Chaim Potok,</i> Knopf, $20, 224 pages

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“He is the carrier of too much memory,” writes Chaim Potok of the Korean boy, half-magical and half-cursed, whose story he tells in “I Am the Clay.” But it is Potok himself who is letting go of a lifetime of memory in his remarkable new book.

Shortly after being ordained as a rabbi, Potok served as an army chaplain with a front-line medical battalion during the Korean War. On his return to the United States, he set out to write the books that earned him a reputation as a gifted chronicler of Jewish life in contemporary America: “The Chosen,” “The Promise” and “My Name Is Asher Lev,” among others.

Potok casts his memory back to Korea, and he comes up with a haunting tale of suffering, survival and redemption in a rugged, war-ravaged Asian landscape.

“I Am the Clay” presents itself with the simple lines, the squashed logic and both the horror and the delight of a fairy tale. An old farmer and his wife, driven from their mountain village by the armies of the north, come across a dying child. The old man is impatient and indifferent, but the old woman--childless and still yearning for a child of her own--insists on trying to save the boy’s life. By the end of the tale, we realize that it is the boy who will save them.

The old man is fearful, embittered, bewildered by the chaos around him. To him, the boy is merely “a stealer of food and loyalty,” and he resents the way that the boy’s very presence rakes up the banked fires of his own youth: “Memory,” the old man carps, “is a grave best left undisturbed.” The old woman, by contrast, is kindly and caring, a pious soul who is intimately attuned to the spirits whose “sighs and flutters” she detects in the caves and mountains where they seek refuge. And she insists on making a food offering at every meal, even if it consists only of melted snow, a few grains of rice and a morsel or two of dog meat.

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The woman sees the rescue of the wounded boy as an act of redemption, an opportunity to regain the infant that she lost in childbirth so many years before. She feeds the boy, bathes him, guards him from danger, even chews the stitches out of his wound with her teeth.

The boy is flesh-and-blood, the offspring of “great scholars and famous poets to 10 generations,” once destined to become a scholar and a poet himself but orphaned by the slaughter of his parents at the hands of North Korean soldiers. The boy is equally tormented by a shrapnel wound and by the memory of his dead parents: “Mother, he thought he heard himself cry out, there was earth in your mouth.”

Still, Potok allows us to see the boy as a charmed figure, a shield against the random violence of war, a healer and a provider amid disease and famine. He feeds the old couple on fish in the frozen mountain wilderness; he charms the wild dogs that stalk them; he bestows abundance and good fortune on them in strange and wondrous ways.

“Is this boy, then, a child of spirits,” the old man wonders, “that he saves my life again and again?”

The story is veiled in myth and metaphor, and there’s a dreamy quality to the prose that sometimes tempts us to regard the book as an allegory of rebirth and redemption. At one point, Potok makes a plain allusion to T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”:

“So many,” the old woman muses as a river of refugees flows by. “The woman had not thought the war had undone so many. . . .”

But Potok refuses to ignore the ugly realities of war. We are given to understand that the old couple and their young charge, like the other refugees around them, rely on themselves alone to search out food, water, firewood, shelter; if they fail for a single day, they will die. And if the old woman indulges in a flight of fancy when she sees the fragment of shrapnel in the boy’s flesh, she quickly calls herself back to reality:

“A piece of the scale from the dragon of death. Remove it.”

Nowadays, we are encouraged to question whether a Western novelist ought to even try to render the experiences of men and women of a different and distant culture. After all, what does an American Jew, born and bred in New York City, know of the world as seen through the eyes of a Korean peasant?

The question may be fashionable, but it misses the point. “I Am the Clay” may be the work of a Western memory, a Western imagination, but the tale is so heartfelt and so fully human that the birthplace of the author hardly matters.


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