Fiction / Raw Love

There is little mercy in this debut novel by Sarah Blau, but a great deal of humanity and a great deal of love.

"Yetzer lev ha'adama" ("The Book of Creation") by Sarah Blau. Zemora-Bitan, 286 pages, NIS 84

Blood and fire, vomit and mud, evil and weeping and death - there is not much mercy in Sarah Blau's debut novel. The narrator, a bitter, single 30-year-old virgin still living with her parents, is bursting at the seams with loathing and desire, and she lashes out at everyone, primarily herself. Her father is a despicable zombie; her mother is a "cow chewing on her cud" who "leaves her daughter to bleed to death in the battlefield that is the living room," and she herself is a "large, pink man-worm," or "the stain of damp spreading across the apartment wall," and also "a small grunting pig" who gorges on food and salivates and vomits and wails and hallucinates and lies and grovels in the dirt and drips with sweat and venom and hates everyone and wants to kill and to dash heads against the wall..."

After about two hours, I wondered briefly if I should give up and send the book back to the editor; how much narcissistic groveling can you take? Still, I went on, perhaps for all those reasons that literary critics repeatedly try to diagnose, without much success; what might be called "narrative skill," a "distinct style" or "careful editing." But that can't really be the case here, because the style is for the most part vulgar, the over-explication is didactic, the images squeezed for every last drop, the humor sour.

The rules of taste, the book taught me, are different here. Surprisingly, however, it was precisely the bad taste that came to form an excellent foundation for love. Because what happened to me is perhaps the best thing that can happen to a reader: I was surprised. I didn't think I could get swept into this book, but a few hours later, I was well into it.

Talma, the narrator, is indeed hard to digest: She is very hungry. Her life unfolds within the small perimeter marked off by her parents' home, her grandmother's house, and her all-girls school ("daughters of Satan," she calls the students) where she teaches and which is also nauseatingly familiar, because she herself studied there. She has never been with a man, and her attention is entirely devoted to her good, caring cousin, whom she has always coveted but who is himself in love with Talma's beautiful female cousin (an entire life unfolds here in the narrow domestic prison; if home is hell, it is also the place where desires are most powerful).

'Good girls don't want anything'

Talma lives a famished life, but she knows that this hunger, "the same hunger that this body of yours produces when it becomes covered with fat glands and hair, and you begin to drip with longings that are never fulfilled" - this hunger must be concealed, because it is not nice, because "good girls don't want anything." To want so much, the rabbi tells her, is a major crime; such powerful yearning stimulates evil.

But it can't be helped: Sometimes "the mongoose that lives under the skin" goes wild and wants to "bite" and "probe" and "pull," longing for a man. And Talma, who inherited her grandmother's house and now lives in it alone, uses words, the secret words she learned from her grandmother, to make a man, a golem; a perfect man whom she shapes with her own hands out of the muddy earth of the graveyard, tall and broad ("It's a good thing I used so much clay. If I'm doing this, I might as well," she comments), who will walk around her house almost naked, his loins alone covered by a small piece of fabric.

Talma might be called a witch. In any case, her disruptive magic will eventually lead to great and shocking calamities (not for nothing is she imprinted at the beginning of the novel with a mark of shame, a red squirt of tomato in the middle of her forehead). But to Talma, the golem is more than an act of sorcery: It is a creation, the creation of life out of a combination of words and letters. The idea carries a fairly simplistic symbolism if you apply it to the novel and its own building blocks, but words create reality here in more ways than one.

In the opening, for example. The novel opens with a long scene of meticulous, cruel scrutiny before the mirror. Blunt words describe the greasy hair, the skin gleaming with oil, the nose in which a past fracture has left a small bump, the lips like two snails, the rounded cheeks, the asymmetrical breasts, the sausage-like hands. This depiction brings to mind the alienated encounter with the mirror in Jean-Paul Sartre's "Nausea." In Sartre, however, the gaze cannot see anything coherent and meets a lax, moonlike world, a geological map without distinct organs, a gaze that presumes to approach the pre-verbal; here, by contrast, it is clear that the words precede observation, and that the gaze, more than it sees, mostly enflames what is already given, the self-hatred that is verbalized to death. This self-hatred becomes a genuine ritual that Talma performs, using a kind of mantra of loathing: "Move already, Talma! Move those giant limbs," she spurs herself rudely, "get a grip on your fat self, now!" But these hate-filled words are less a reflection of reality and more the creation of a false one. Because, as Talma will later discover, she actually likes herself.

He takes her words seriously

That, perhaps, is the most important thing she will learn from her golem. The discovery will come not only because he will allow her to love him, but for a much more interesting reason: Because he takes her words seriously. The golem has a wonderful quality: He obeys, he makes wishes come true. And if so, there is no way and no reason to lie, either in love or in hate. And because the golem also fulfills wishes that are not expressed openly, he will force Talma to acknowledge them. It is not for nothing that fairy tales teach us that to have your wishes come true is to risk terrible calamity: not only because the wishes themselves are so disastrous, but because they are sometimes revealed in the process to be very, very simple.

That may be why at first, terrified to discover that her words are orders for the golem and that her desires are about to be carried out, Talma becomes mute. She says nothing for days. All of a sudden, it is important to know what you want, and it is better if you ask for it directly. "I feel how the damp snail crawls down my thighs again, leaving its wet trail, feel the wetness pouring out of every opening in my body. I squeeze my legs together." But the golem sees everything: He "smiles before me, his smile seems to mock me: You'll have to ask, sweetie, he says, you'll have to tell me what to do." "Please. . . kiss me," she says in one of the book's most touching scenes, and he does, on the forehead. "Please, on the mouth," she says more precisely, and he, meticulously, obeys. She has no choice now but to say it in words, the clearest ones she can find in her present daze: "Do it to me," and she adds the most embarrassing part: "Do it to me hard." There, she has said it. And her wishes will be fulfilled.

A golem. This term contains enough symbolic value to drown the entire book (the word's Hebrew meanings include, among other things, pupa or cocoon, an inert object and dunce). To me, however, the power of the book does not lie in symbols, certainly not in the possible analogy between Talma's relationship with the golem and man-woman relations, or in the kabbalistic and historical allusions, such as the story of Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague [who, according to the legend, created a golem of his own]. The book's power lies in this untenable love story, a love story that is impossible and above all stupid - like all love stories, really. So what if the golem does not have a soul, and so what if he did not speak a single word, and so what if he had no alternatives, and Talma is the only woman he ever saw. And so what if he is made out of mud. When Talma weeps in his arms, his muddy chest dissolves, leaving a hole; and Talma, instead of sinking into her own tears, finds herself deep in the mud, his mud. What could be more human?

Even when love here stands on a lump of nothingness, even if "in its depths... Talma identifies the void, the black hole, the nothing. At its center... there is nothing" - even then, love in this book is not diminished; it does not become any less real, powerful or poignant. And in the end, it seems, with all of its spectacular calamities, this story is mainly a calamity of a different sort: an extreme case of love.