THE BOOK OF THE UNKNOWN by Jonathon Keats

THE BOOK OF THE UNKNOWN

Tales of the Thirty-six
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KIRKUS REVIEW

Echoes of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholom Aleichem and S.Y. Agnon sound throughout this high-concept collection’s engaging stories.

Keats (The Pathology of Lies, 1999) frames the tales with a “Foreword” in which scholar Jay Katz summarizes the Talmudic concept of the Lamedh-Vov: those 36 righteous individuals upon whose continued existence the survival of humanity depends. He then offers 12 of their stories, gathered from as many villages. Later an “Afterword” announces Katz’s mysterious disappearance, but hints that the remaining 24 stories may be likewise “discovered.” The righteous encountered in these stories are humble souls burdened with responsibilities that prove to have broad universal applications. Examples include a naïve fisherman (“Alef the Idiot,” who rather too closely recalls Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool”), gifted with an ability to love that transforms even his superior, shrewish wife into a wiser being; a failed circus performer (“Heyh the Clown”) whose ingenuous talent to amuse warms the heart and awakens the love of a melancholy monarch; and a simple bricklayer (“Yod-Alef the Murderer”), chosen by lot to introduce death into a village “once forgotten by the grim reaper.” Though each story is given a convincing folkloric texture, several do not persuasively develop their invariably intriguing premises. There are two brilliant exceptions. “Zayin the Profane” recounts the spiritual odyssey of an apothecary’s daughter who adopts her father’s employment of hopeful placebos, accepts responsibility for the “arrogance” she has thus shared and, in an entirely unexpected way, becomes a renowned healer. “Yod the Inhuman” concerns a widowed scholar who fashions from clay a beautiful and submissive golem. His creation endures severe hardships, achieves prosperity and high position and assumes a more-than-human compassionate humanity.

Unusual and charming stories that successfully revive a nearly forgotten form of storytelling. One hopes we will hear more of these Lamedh-Vov and their all-too-human struggles and triumphs.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-8129-7897-1
Page count: 226pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2008