Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Historical fiction - Sarah, by Marek Halter

This is an ambitious book. It takes us into the mind of its characters, particular Sarah's.  "She did not need to look down to know that her tunic was stained. She could feel the fine woolen cloth sticking wetly to her thighs and knees ... Fear, disgust, and denial mingled in her mind." 

Was it physical revulsion or youthful rebellion or ... that drove this twelve year old against what seems to be the tradition of her society when "Bridal blood" appears at the onset of puberty. This sets her off on a willful rebellion against her father's plans for her betrothal. But this reader cannot relate to this - nowhere does the author provide a hint WHY Sarah resented her predicament.  "In exchange for a few shekels of silver or a few measures of barley," she would be given to a man. Should someone reading this in the 21st-century project into the story a present-day motive?

Ichbi Sum-Usur, her father, notices that she has a stubborn streak as strong as his own but Sarah does not appear motivated simply to thwart her father. All the details regarding oaks and terebinth, the ointment of cypress that a Sumerian groom puts on the brow of his betrothed at their nuptials, the odors of almond, orange peel, sesame seed oil, the olive oil in woolen tampons - appear as smoke and mirrors to distract the reader. 

The poor thing is twelve years old and reads in the eyes of her prospective groom his judgment of her - "thin, graceless, without breasts or hips." It seems creepy that a wedding is planned for her and this man, but we don't have any inkling that this is what propels her to flee her home (in a posh section of town reserved for Sumerian nobility) to find a kassaptu, a witch, who could sell her herbs to prevent fertility. (The word reportedly appears in Sumerian incantations against witchcraft.)


Sarah's rebellion, in that it is unexplained, does mirror Abraham's against the traditions of his own tribe - the many gods, made of wood or clay, that even his father Terah worshipped. This reader was left with the impression that his arguments against the many gods make more sense than his faith in the One, invisible and unrepresented, who speaks very occasionally to him. The same wilfulness, lack of clear motivation, shrouds both main characters.  For Abraham, it was a leap of faith. A reader of this novel does not expect to make a similar effort to follow the story.

As a result, the book lacks the "why" that would carry a story, but not a plot. The author relies on the traditional, Biblical story for a guide to what happens and when. Thus the narrative moves along despite the absence of motivation that a reader can detect in the main characters.

Many other things are brought to life in this book. Sarah's embarrassment over Lot's infatuation, her distrust of Eliezer of Damascus - a boy that Abraham brings into his trust, her intriguing ambiguity over Pharoah's advances. Despite the book's brevity, each of these motifs leaves the reader with a sense of understanding - but not the desperate resort to those herbs.

The author has stretched to cover all the high points of the Biblical story and added many details regarding ancient history. This is entirely an author's prerogative. It is also the fate of those who write historical fiction to have to decide how much history to include. This is a matter of judgment, but there are consequences.

Choosing to make Sarah a Sumerian is a huge step that allows the author to avoid the question of whether and how Sarah is related to Abraham. Tradition speaks of her as having the same father as Abraham and there is within some circles much anguish over the taboos that had to be finessed. 

Making her the daughter of a Sumerian nobleman solves this. Sarah is not only from a different family but from a different people, a different civilization. But it raises other questions. The Sumerians are obscure but not so obscure as to preclude raising other questions regarding the timeline of the events retold in this novel.

The Sumerian aspect becomes entangled with Halter's choice to tell his story with several appearances by Melchizedek. This is an enigmatic figure about which Jewish, Christian and other traditions have an uneasy body of knowledge. Such a figure might have been left in the mists of legend. But he lives and breathes in this novel with a remark that suggests he is the first of the Hebrews. If he is a "historical" figure, when did he live and was it any time that made an association with Abraham possible or likely?

Can one ignore these questions on grounds of an author's discretion?

I believe that this depends. Everything an author writes builds a world. If the author invests his story with pieces of Sumerian facts or lore, then "consistency" requires that the world created jibes with known facts. An author is free to choose to write fantasy, for instance, but to write about Polish knights or Luftwaffe battle tactics begins the process of circumscribing his novel, his artistic freedom. In choosing to write of Melchizedek as the king of Salem, who called his people "Hebrews," Halter brings the question of known facts upon himself.

Not an expert on the history or legends of Melchizedek, I am however aware as Halter must be that tradition makes him a son or grandson of Noah through Shem. This is most inconvenient for a historical Abraham - usually dated around 2000 B.C. But a "historical" Melchizedek must be dated close to 2500 B.C. - if we accept the tradition that he was somehow related to Shem. And it should be noted that Shem as the great-grandson of Enoch, whose life overlapped with his as well as Adam's, is a link to the Creation. Halter has wisely chosen to disregard this complication, but he himself invited this by inserting so much of Melchizedek into his story.

I found understandable Sarah's love-hate feelings towards Hagar. She was a gift from Pharoah who wanted nothing left that would remind him of the woman Abraham passed off as his sister. The picture of a rambunctious Ishmael is likewise engaging though brief. But what is one to make of Sarah's request in the prologue when she is on her deathbed - that both Isaac and Ishmael would gather with all the people at her tomb? Nothing in the story shed further light.

Finally, in the mystery that, since Kierkegaard, one confronts with fear and trembling - the sacrifice of Isaac that Ywvh asks of Abraham - Halter has given Sarah an enviable role in resolving this heart-rending turn of events. 


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