Hebrew fiction/Declaration of Assets

There's little doubt that Shimon Adaf is a genius. But in his latest novel, a dystopic tale about the last surviving remnant of the Jewish people after the next destruction, he seems mainly preoccupied with demonstrating his virtues

Novelist Shimon Adaf
David Bachar

Kfor (Nuntia ) by Shimon Adaf. Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan (Hebrew ), 285 pages, NIS 89

In 2510, years after Judaism has almost completely disappeared from the world and recreated itself as a secluded Orthodox community in Tel Aviv, strange things are happening in the city. "A person of impure lips" is seen in an abandoned apartment whose owner died for no apparent reason, and there he recites forbidden words of poetry that blind their listeners. At the same time, young yeshiva students are hospitalized because they are undergoing mysterious physical changes: Their incisors are becoming sharper and incipient wings are growing from their shoulders. They are slowly turning into huge birds or heretical angels. A young prodigy, Yehezkel Ben-Gerim, who is well versed in both Torah and science, is asked to solve the mystery. After spending time in the "northern countries of the goyim," he is asked to prepare a cure to restore order.

A plot like this - and that's only the nutshell description - arouses admiration. Who other than Shimon Adaf can create such imaginative Jewish science fiction? "Nuntia" (whose Hebrew title, "Kfor," means frost ) creates a highly detailed futuristic world, in which one can find the special qualities that make Adaf, the much-praised Sderot-raised writer of poetry, fiction and essays, a daring and unconventional artist. Motivated by the desire to breach consensual standards of writing, to cause friction between past and future, and to create literary, technological and linguistic worlds, Adaf is situated at the cutting edge of literary innovation in Israel. In a culture that does not tend to experiment with dangerous discussions or to breach boundaries of time and place, "Nuntia" marks an ambitious alternative, in the guise of the literary ability to imagine a distant future for a community under siege and to reexamine that community's Jewish identity.

The Jew is entirely a rotted past, writes Adaf, "a moldy shroud." If you desire to get to know him, the author suggests, take a shovel and "dig deep into memories, vestiges of sagas, repressions." In the world of the future, the goyim are a combination of artificial intelligence and mechanical implants; technology is mobilized for the fight against mutations created by time. But the Jews have remained unknowing of technology, and so are susceptible to the dangers of history and nature.

Jewish science relates to the body not as flesh but as an idea, an inert gas that is engaged in a constant struggle against "assimilation." Therefore it also exposes the Jewish body to the powers of nature and the urges of creation. Even the reincarnation of the yeshiva boys, with their strange mutation, is a result of the evolutionary tendency to change a living creature that is no longer adapted to its surroundings. This is the story of a secret, which is passed on through sacred Hebrew words, and only those words can control it.

Adaf has a tremendous knowledge base that encompasses chemistry and physics, the mysteries of Jewish tradition, works of science fiction and the layers of the Hebrew language. And this knowledge is demonstrated constantly, in a great many allusions and quotations. The story employs Hebrew, Moroccan Arabic, Aramaic and Latin. It cites from the infinite chambers of Jewish and general culture: from the Mishna and the Talmud, from the works of Isaac Babel, Gershom Scholem, Rashi, Maimonides, Primo Levi, Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin. All of these reverberate in the text and enrich it from within itself. But they also sometimes make reading it a chore.

Adaf declares his erudition publicly, frequently and without irony. The novel is constantly testing its readers; it demands that they be familiar with the quotations and the allusions, using them to decipher the events and language of the story. There is an unpleasant attitude of literary and intellectual hubris that places a greater burden on the story than it can bear. It emphasizes the challenge faced by erudite and sophisticated writers like Adaf: The wealth has piled up and is poised in the point of the writer's pen; but the paper demands restraint. When Adaf describes the facial expression of one of the characters, he compares it "to Primo Levi's expression when he rejects the poetry of Paul Celan." Such a simile is nothing more than a declaration of assets. And as such references accumulate, reading the book ends up being a constant test of expertise, or a ritual, an impossible demand to decipher its secrets.

The narrator of "Nuntia" constantly places himself in a godlike position. That's not unusual: Writers do in fact create worlds and arrange them as they wish; when they write "And there was light," there really is light. Love of literature is a religion with its own ceremonies and contracts, with trusting relationships and rules of faith. Readers believe in the writer, believe with all their might, because through him they can experience other voices, foreign entities and unfamiliar times. But the narrator of "Nuntia" does not let us forget his omniscience; he is a demanding and vengeful god who demands respect. Located in the highest heaven, he proclaims his ability to detect "an energetic point between other points," and also "to observe it, to remove it from other creatures." That is an off-putting attitude; it suspends the conspiracy of silence surrounding the trust created between himself and his readers.

Adaf hints at his forbidden wisdom, his mysticism, with which he desecrates reality and wounds its boundaries. In his futuristic society, bad poets - "our young and brazen writers, the media starlets, who are reproduced until they come out of our ears" - are not permitted to write in verse; only the good poets "are obliged to engage in the work of poetry." Bad poetry destroyed the Tel Aviv of our day, because nobody understood that "foolish use of the holy tongue is more destructive than smoke and soot and the dust of construction and corruption and blood."

But then the writer suddenly appears, the guardian angel of the Hebrew language, and writes pure poetry in the holy tongue. And in fact, the novel does include wonderful passages of poetry, drawn from Adaf's most recent book of verse, "Aviva - Lo" ("Aviva - No"), which dealt with the death of his older sister. These passages of poetry appear as proof of the power of "good" poetry to create life and to end it. One of the characters in the novel, Mira, who was given the gift of poetry in spite of the fact that the form is forbidden to women, uses the words of the poet, which is to say of Adaf, and has the power to disrupt the world order with them, to fill the soul with passion and to cause those who hear her to throw their powerless bodies into walls.

Shimon Adaf is a genius; he is erudite, and a poet, and a man of many talents. But this novel seems to exist primarily to proclaim his virtues, to celebrate them and to demand that they be acknowledged. The words of literature are always a site of sacrifice, but when they worship the deified writer rather than serving the ritual of literature, they are liable to risk desecrating God's name. They turn the story of "Nuntia" into idol worship. Omri Herzog is a literary critic and a regular contributor to Haaretz Books.