Monday, June 23, 2014

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.  

“THE RAPE OF TAMAR” by Dan Jacobson (first published in 1970)
            There are two very good Jewish writers whom I sometimes mix up in my mind, even though they are not related to each other. One is the British-born Howard Jacobson (born 1942), Booker Prize-winner for The Finkler Question in 2010 and the author of Roots, Schmoots [my take upon which you can look up on this blog’s index]. The other is the South African-born, but British-resident, Dan Jacobson (born 1929), who has also had a distinguished literary career. Dan Jacobson’s memoir Time and Time Again (1985) contains some of the most haunting stories I’ve yet read in an autobiography.
The two Jacobsons are very different writers in some respects. Howard is more often comic and satirical. Dan is more often sombre and reflective, though with a sharp satirical streak too. Some things they have in common, however. For both, their Jewish heritage is something to be questioned constantly. Both are agnostic, yet both are interested enough in the Jewish religious tradition to plunge into the Hebrew Bible in a critical way. Howard Jacobson’s novel The Very Model of a Man (1992) is his version of the wanderings of Cain at odds with God. Dan Jacobson has written The Story of Stories, which is essentially a sceptic’s guide to the Hebrew Bible. Then there is Dan Jacobson’s The Rape of Tamar (1970), a tight, frequently sardonic tale also drawn from Scripture.
If you seek the “plot” of The Rape of Tamar, you need only refer to 2 Samuel Chapter 13. King David’s son Amnon feels an incestuous passion for his sister Tamar. Amnon’s devious cousin Yonadab advises Amnon that he can lure Tamar to his house by pretending to be sick and asking for her care. Amnon does so. Despite her resistance, Amnon rapes Tamar… then immediately (in the words of the RSV version of the Bible) he “hated her with a very great hatred; so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her”. Tamar complains to her brother Absalom. When King David hears of the matter, however, he imposes no punishment on Amnon. Tamar continues to live in Absalom’s house. Two years later, Absalom gets revenge for his sister. He lures Amnon to a feast with other sons of David, then gets his servants to fall upon Amnon and kill him. At first King David thinks that all his sons have been killed by the ambitious Absalom, but Yonadab is able to persuade him otherwise. However, we can see the matter creates a great estrangement between King David and Absalom, which will years later lead to the revolt and death of Absalom.
There are novels, drawn from Bible stories, which are picturesque and rambling, designed mainly to divert readers by their exotic descriptions and invented incidents. Dan Jacobson’s The Rape of Tamar is no such thing. As the narrator declares early in the piece (Chapter 1):
 “I can promise you that I will do my very best to spare you descriptions of our exotic style of life: I don’t intend to linger over our furniture, our clothes… our utterly inadequate sewage system, our weapons, our games, our primitive sacral rites, and all the rest of the ethnographic junk you may be glumly expecting me to inflict on you…
In other words, we are definitely not in the land of Hollywood-ian, Cecil B. de Mille Biblical spectacular. This tight and well-organized novel (a mere 140 pages in the Penguin edition I read) sticks closely to the Biblical account, inventing few incidents that cannot be justified from Scripture. Those things that Jacobson does invent are very direct inferences from Scripture. For example, in the Biblical account, Yonadab is at first Amnon’s friend and advisor. Later he gives advice to King David, mitigating Absalom’s activities. Jacobson therefore understandably depicts Yonadab as a man who “switches sides” and follows power for reasons of self-interest.
The novelist’s focus is on the moral implications of the story and what it says about power.
The narrative voice is extremely important. The Rape of Tamar is narrated by David’s nephew and Amnon’s cousin and friend, the “crafty” (RSV’s word for him) Yonadab. The voice of Yonadab is the voice of a Hebrew Machiavel. He is obsessed with power, but knows he will never attain it, and therefore has a sardonic view of the powerful, whom he sets out to manipulate. Jacobson allows Yonadab to use sometimes a modern frame of reference, describing himself as “Kantian… long before I ever heard of Kant” (Chapter 5), referring to the branch of King David’s government in which he is employed as “the Ministry of Public Works” and otherwise showing a modern sensibility, as well as having foresight. (As he tells the story of the rape of Tamar, he is able also to tell us of the death of Absalom, which occurred years later). And yet he is fully integrated into the historical times of the novel and credible as an historical character.
Of course the narrator is not the same as the novelist, but the narrator is often a mask through which the novelist can speak. God comes into this novel very little. There are references to syncretism and in Chapter 3 a brief discourse, from Yonadab, on the incestuous marriages between pagan gods and goddesses (to which Amnon refers in self-justification when he is attempting at first to seduce his sister Tamar). But Yonadab is a sceptic (“scepticism was the secret of my failure” Chapter 1) and basically sees God as a means by which powerful people justify their own actions and decisions. He does not see God-fearers as dishonest, insincere or claiming to believe what they do not really believe. “I am not accusing [King] David of hypocrisy,” he says in Chapter 2, “On the contrary I am accusing him of sincerity.” What he does see, however, are powerful people, who believe sincerely that their own interests and desires are God-ordained or sanctioned by God. Thus it is when David “repents” of having killed those who have done his bidding in killing others, and so believes he is morally justified. Thus it is when Absalom believes he is morally justified in killing Amnon, even though it just happens to suit his own plans for gaining power.
Dan Jacobson has another reason for using Yonadab as narrator. It is so that certain things can be witnessed credibly. In the Bible, the rape of Tamar – the very moment when she is violated – is one of those many Biblical passages at which the thoughtful reader has to pause. We know that there could be no possible witness to the event described, apart from the rapist Amnon and the victim Tamar, neither of whom would be likely to see the event as the Bible presents it. Jacobson solves this problem by having Yonadab play Peeping Tom, and watch the whole thing from a hiding place. The rape itself (Chapter 6) is virtually played in slow motion, with Yonadab accounting for every word, movement and gesture. This is not prurient. Jacobson is emphasizing the rapist’s self-justifications, the young girl’s attempts to save herself, and the psychological horror of the event.
There’s a further matter in Jacobson’s agenda. In both the Biblical account and in Jacobson’s novel, Tamar herself virtually disappears from the story once she has made her public and private protests to Absalom. She becomes, in effect, less important than the power struggle between the ageing King David and the ambitious prince Absalom (“the glamour boy of the court” according to Jacobson) who is all too eager to take charge. As the novel presents it, King David is not outraged by the rape itself so much as by the fact that Tamar first sought help from Absalom, thus implying that David was no longer the master in his own house and the man from whom justice should be sought. Later, when David rebukes Amnon, he does so by saying that Amnon’s crime must be God’s way of reminding David of his own youthful sins. Yonadab remarks ironically that David is therefore “the man upon whom God’s mighty interest is all but exclusively concentrated… the sufferings of Tamar remain entirely unmentioned.” (Chapter 12)
By giving such a detailed account of the rape, Jacobson is in effect reminding us that the violation of Tamar should be the centre of the story, even if it is not seen as such by David and Absalom. In this, I believe Dan Jacobson’s novel, published in 1970, was a decade or two ahead of those feminist Biblical critics who have taken the story in 2 Samuel 13 as a typical instance of Scriptural story-telling dominated by patriarchal interests, and ignoring the centrality and suffering of women. (I encountered articles by many such critics while doing undergraduate papers in Scripture as part of a BTheol.)
I have one other reason for liking this classically structured, disciplined and dense short novel: I love the rave against historicism which Jacobson puts into Yonadab’s mouth in Chapter 7. Directly addressing the modern reader, Yonadab turns on us and denounces us for believing that we are somehow morally different from, and more important than, people in past ages. He accuses us for “the very belief in your difference from us, which is no more than a manifestation of your particular style of self-importance.”
Well said, Yonadab. Or is it Dan Jacobson?

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