The First Glow?

By Dan Friedman

Published September 14, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Last Ember
Daniel Levin
Riverhead Books
415 pages, $25.99

The last thing the world needs is another “Da Vinci Code” knockoff, especially just as Dan Brown himself is about to publish his own latest knockoff which, however derivative, is likely to be “what the people want.” The second-to-last thing the world needs is another smug Jewish lawyer who thinks he (or she) can write a novel. It certainly does not need a tall, dark, well-tailored author writing a Jewish-themed “Da Vinci Code” with a tall, dark, handsome, brilliant lawyer-investigator as protagonist. So it was with a morbid fascination, akin to how I imagine historians will view Dick Cheney’s correspondence (what remains and remains intact) in 30 years time, that I cracked open “The Last Ember” by Daniel Levin.

Unlike these future historians, readers of “The Last Ember” have neither an unreliable narrator nor real-world betrayals of the body-politic to contend with. Instead the prose is, if anything, too smooth, too sincere, too lawyerly, in keeping with the profession of both protagonist and author. But, and for fairness’s sake, let me get the outcome of my reading up near the start, Daniel Levin has done a fantastic job of storytelling. This novel, his first, is a compelling read that does all those things that sound easy and formulaic but are actually extremely difficult to pull off without seeming to try. The love interest (will they, won’t they), the historical intrigue (Jews, Catholics, Muslims), the secret villain (my lips are sealed), the exotic locations (Rome and Jerusalem), the plot twists: None of Levin’s tactics are going to send the literary critics scurrying off to rewrite the books of theory; in fact rather than promote running, Levin will, if anything, make the world a little more sedentary as people sit and read his book to the end of its 400 short pages.

Based on the iconic image on the Arch of Titus, where the Israelite menorah is being marched out of Jerusalem by the victorious Roman army, “The Last Ember” is about the final triumph of writing over pictures. The hero of the book is Yosef Ben Matityahu, better known as the Roman historian Titus Flavius Josephus — or just Josephus — one of the few people with a credible claim to the title of “Father of Written History.” Josephus, the novel pretends, became a Roman specifically in order to secure and secrete certain vital religious artifacts where no Romans would find them. His histories, and the apparent tonal variations and discrepancies become virtuosic code pieces that allow Marcus, with more than a little help from Emili Traviati and his other friends, to race the bad guys towards the goal.

“Star Trek” started out using an impetuous aggressive male as the lead — William Shatner as Kirk. Over the decades and the generations though, the impetuous aggressive male kept getting moved down the totem pole; after Captain (later Admiral) Kirk, Will Riker (Jonathan Frakes) from “The Next Generation” was “No. 2” and by the time of “Voyager,” Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) was only the helmsman. Levin’s main success is to place Jonathan Marcus, the lead character of “The Last Ember,” at about Will Riker level. He is powerful enough to be a significant agent in his own adventure, but he doesn’t really know what’s going on in love, his career or the investigation at hand. While painting him as smart and strong enough to have a fighting chance to succeed, Levin provides Marcus with enough failure, foolishness and foolhardiness that we actually like the guy.

That connection comes in handy when he or one of his colleagues gets stuck in one of the obligatory expository scenes. For a reader with more than the most glancing basis of Jewish knowledge its easy to skim over passages that explain, for example, the ostensible miracle of Hanukkah when you do it without intending to scorn the speaker. Skipping over the words of a shlemazel is quite different from skipping over the words of a Machiavelli. The book contains some wise old advisors, a sprinkling of useful female characters (both useful and effective in the plot and useful since the readers of this type of novel are predominantly female) and an array of well-known archaeological sites deployed in ways that have not previously been seen. The Shoah touches on the plot, but in a tasteful and appropriate way — writing about old folks in Rome in the early 21st century and not mentioning the pre-eminent trauma of their lives would have been a sad omission.

With a foot in the camps of fact and fantasy, Levin has admirably succeeded in keeping his legs together! If one were to spoil the plot by revealing its twists and turns, it would seem baroque and ridiculous, but Levin’s telling of it keeps it plausible and even politically relevant — given the real legal disputes over the Temple Mount upon which the book was partly based. The book describes the last ember of a hidden history, but this debut novel is the first appearance of what, with luck and a grasp of material other than Jewish and Roman, archaeology may actually become a regularly warm storytelling glow.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love.
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.