It's a curious fact that Russell Hoban and Norman Mailer are very nearly the same age (born 1925 and 1923 respectively)—because, like Mailer's Ancient Evenings (p. 203), Hoban's new novel is a quasi-mystical blend of theology, ghosts, magic, death-songs, and dark sexual visions. But, while Mailer's book surrounds those preoccupations with a longwinded, episodic narrative, Hoban presents them in a dreamlike meditation-cumpilgrimage—dense, poetic, difficult. The pilgrim/narrator is Pilgermann, a Jew in 1096 Europe, who indulges his lust for the local tax-collector's wife Sophia. . . and, after leaving her, is promptly castrated by the townsfolk, but not killed—thanks to, of all people, the tax-collector. And then Pilgermann has a vision of Christ, followed by a voice telling him—"Thou pilgrim Jew!"—to go to Jerusalem. Why? "To keep Jesus from going away," as God has gone away. So Pilgermann sets off for the Holy Land on foot. His acquaintances along the way include: a dying, John Irvingesque bear, symbolizing Christ ("What a wonderful bear that was! How I wished that I could have him for a friend"); a company of children raped by skeleton-creatures symbolizing Lust; a lascivious talking (and constantly fornicating) pig; assorted ghosts; and Pilgermann's own death, a visible entity but "not yet ripened to term." As he travels pilgermann ponders war, Hieronymus Bosch (the narrator is actually Pilgermann's eternal, clairvoyant soul), epiphany ("the strange brilliance of total Now"), and the Naumburg stone story: "The Jesusness of Jesus cannot live without the Judasness of Judas, the Caiaphasness of Caiphas, the Pilateness of Pilate. Ponderous wheel!" Then, in the novel's second half, Pilgermann becomes a slave to a simpatico Turk in Antioch—where he and his master consider "potentiality and actuality," the "motion of the Unseen": Pilgermann creates a mystical geometrical design for a tiled marketplace—a pattern symbolizing both the pro and con of religion. And when the crusading Franks arrive to massacre, Pilgermann curses God, achieves a purple-blue state of "indescribable luminosity". . . and faces his own extinction. At its best: a harrowing yet elegant blend of shapely parable and anguished imagery. At its worst: a cross between a comparative theology lecture and Castaneda-style blather. Of limited appeal, then, without the epic allure of Riddley Walker—but often a rich, bizarre challenge for the theologically-minded.
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