The book opens with a poem.
“WRITTEN IN PENCIL IN THE SEALED BOXCAR
here in this transport
with abel my son
if you see my firstborn
cain son of man
tell him that i”
The poem is by Dan Pagis, not by Tsipi Keller, the Israeli author of “The Prophet of Tenth Street”. The poem is a reknown part of Holocaust teaching at Yad Vashem and other memorials.
The plot of the novel flows from the quote of German poet, Heinrich Heine, who converted from Judaism to Christianity: “Where books are burned, people will be burned.” Although set in the present, the quote is from a time before Kindles and Nooks. The medium, however, is not the message.
This is not Holocaust or post-Holocaust fiction. It is not about Jewish writers or Jewish literature. It is about the love of language and the process and art of writing. It is about observation and self-absorption. The writer’s sacrifice of people for words and characters, but not of humanity. Marcus, the principal character, is a middle aged Jewish divorced writer, who shares his life with his weekly live-in friend, Gina, who yearns for a more social existence as he writes. A match-maker by nature, she thrusts company upon him, which he uses to test his thoughts, intellectually elevate the dialogue, and bemoan the decline in reading. It is unclear if he is publishable, as his intended work the “Dictionary of the Human Gesture in Western Literature” would have a limited market. The business of publishing is not the subject of the book. Marcus’ one wish in the world is to know every word in the dictionary. He is in love with words and language. You traverse his New York City neighborhood with him seeing it and the world through Marcus’ eyes. Every gesture is noticed, every movement considered, and reconsidered. It is a binary world with analog reasoning. The book is Jewish literature insofar as Marcus is Conservative-lite Jewish and conveys his view of the Jewish experience to his non-Jewish friends and girlfriend.
There is forgiveness and love of life conveyed throughout the book. It is not depressing. It is a pleasant read, but one that ends with Marcus’ suprising response from Eve.