THE CABALIST by Amanda Prantera


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Like Strange Loop (1985), Prantera's second novel takes a small-scale, familiar occult premise--the stuff of a Twilight Zone episode--and delivers it with self-conscious literary erudition. The effect this time, thanks to increased pretentiousness (e.g., echoes of Thomas Mann), is lamely portentous rather than whimsically beguiling or mysterious. The cabalist of the title is elderly Joseph Kestler, a professional student of the occult who has just been informed--by a doctor in Venice--that he is terminally ill with inoperable lung cancer. So Kestler determines to accomplish his life's work as soon as possible: he must finish writing out ""his secret, his message to the world""--the true origins of cabala (Canaanite, not Jewish!)--and find someone to entrust with this precious testament. Also, Kestler vows to confront the cruel little boy who lives just across the palazzo: this lad who tortures and kills cats just might be a demon, ""some kind of evil spirit or other which has been sent to plague him and disrupt his work."" (Kestler calls the boy ""the Catcher."") Things don't go according to plan for Kestler, however. His attempt to prove his magical powers to an academic audience (by casting a spell on a dog) is a disaster. He doesn't know what to do with his finished manuscript--especially since it's now apparent that ""the Catcher"" (a definite demon, the greedy Azazael in fact) is intent on stealing Kestler's magic. And after the manuscript is indeed stolen in a nighttime mugging (Kestler winds up in the hospital), the cabalist finally comes to understand the real nature of this demon--a doppelganger-ish ghost--and makes a last-gasp attempt to keep his ""testament"" safe from the evil forces. Throughout, there are hints that Kestler might actually be a deeply disturbed man (who witnessed his parents' grisly death as a child), not a genuine magician. But this ambiguity is irritating rather than intriguing--just as Prantera's mannered narration, complete with Dear-Reader asides and arch shifts of tense and viewpoint, seems more confused than complex. So, despite stretches of reasonably elegrant prose, this exercise in contemporary literary Gothic remains just that: a fussy exercise--too tamely static for occult-lovers, too insubstantial for those seriously interested in the literature of cabalistic mysticism.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1986
Publisher: Atheneum