The Last Ember
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.
Dan Friedman is the executive editor of the Forward. But when he’s not doing that, he’s writing a book about the rock band Tears for Fears.