An unusual first novel, about the fate of the Polish Jews during WW II, that engagingly blends doctrinal wisdom with...



An unusual first novel, about the fate of the Polish Jews during WW II, that engagingly blends doctrinal wisdom with magical-realist surrealism. The protagonist and narrator, 60-year-old Chaim Skibeiski (identified as the author's great-grandfather) is, as his remarkable story begins, dead--shot by German soldiers and dumped into a mass grave along with dozens of his kinsmen and townspeople. Yet Chaim's torn and still-bleeding body remains above ground, invisible to others, paradoxically capable of thinking and feeling, getting drunk, committing poltergeist-like mischief, and conversing with wolves, among other newfound abilities. On his continually interrupted pilgrimage toward ""the World to Come,"" Chaim is accompanied (then, unaccountably, deserted) by his village rabbi, whose shape has shifted into that of a talking crow; reunites with his two wives, several children, and various old friends; debates (in the most awkward and over-attenuated sequence here) man's obligation to his fellow man with the decapitated head of a German soldier; and crosses a river to arrive at the luxurious Hotel Amfortas--which appears to be a beneficent purgatory, until Chaim discovers what is actually being baked in the hotel's underground ovens. Finally, he joins a group of scholars who have hidden out during the war and are employing mathematics, astrophysics, and the precepts of the Kabbalah in an effort to restore to its empty place in the sky the disappeared, ""landlocked"" moon. Their labor is accomplished, and in a lovely visionary conclusion, Chaim's abused and weary body is laid to rest. This is, on balance, a haunting novel, intensely imagined, and--if less successfully plotted and placed--redeemed by Skibell's gifts for vivid imagery (sleeping ""bodies lie twisted, like shipwrecks, in the sheets, as though a great sea had tossed them there"") and robust gallows humor (""If there is a Paradise, do you actually think they'd let Jews into it?""). A fine debut, manifestly infused with deep familial and cultural feeling, and a significant contribution to the ongoing literature of the Holocaust.

Pub Date: Oct. 3, 1997

ISBN: 1616200189

Page Count: 268

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1997

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