Muck: A Novel
Translated from the Hebrew by Gabriel Levin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pages, $27
Prophets don’t really see the future. What they see all too clearly is the present. That’s why prophecy is a lonely, thankless job. Think about the fate of the biblical Jeremiah. For about 40 years, he preached rage and lamentation, dreams of utopia and nightmares of dystopia. He survived five kings, public rejection, imprisonment and plots against his life, only to die in a foreign land. At one point, as hostile armies lay siege to Jerusalem, the king’s ministers accused him of demoralizing the homefront. They howled for his punishment, and the king allowed his minions to perform a kind of First Temple “waterboarding.” Jeremiah was lowered into a cistern by ropes, but instead of water he sank into muck. Dror Burstein’s phantasmagoric novelization of the Book of Jeremiah, “Muck,” takes its name from these few biblical verses.
But the muck of “Muck” doesn’t refer just to Jeremiah’s terrifying moments of torture. Burstein’s fictional Jerusalem is mired in filth, corruption and crises of muddy intractability. One of the most brilliant of today’s Israeli authors, Burstein allows his language to slip with ease between the biblical and the contemporary. Translator Gabriel Levin, an accomplished poet, moves gracefully from slang to the sublimities of the Book of Jeremiah. Levin appears to have translated direct quotations from the Hebrew Bible himself, or to have created a composite of extant translations, rather than relying on a standard text like the King James or other available English-language versions. Nonetheless, readers should have little difficulty identifying the biblical passages that echo and resound in Burstein’s narrative.
The novel’s temporal mash-up is even more audacious than its linguistic shifts. The Temple rises over Jerusalem, but so does the urban blight of the Holyland complex, now claimed as the king’s palace. A light rail snakes its way through city streets, carrying Jeremiah and other prophets who rebuke one another and their fellow travelers. Poets sporting Akkadian tattoos and Assyrian beards stare into smartphones and trade literary gossip. The Cinematheque perches over the Hinnom Valley, where children are sacrificed to Moloch. As the novel’s hapless Jeremiah recognizes. “Why, the world’s nothing more than an ocean of muck!” Bleak though this view may be, Jeremiah’s realization proves true in ways both comic and tragic.
Burstein’s old-new Jerusalem is the capital of Judah, a “negligible” puppet kingdom torn between the regional powers of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon and Pharaoh in Egypt. Like his biblical namesake, the novel’s Jeremiah prophesies Judah’s downfall. As Babylon’s tanks and “mounted troops in iron chariots” close in, a terrified King Johiakim drowns himself at a public celebration of “The Largest Bowl of Hummus From the Euphrates to the Nile.” Hummus becomes a motif in the novel, as much due to its consistency — similar to “muck” — as to the vegan author’s obsession with the ubiquitous chickpea paste. Burstein wrote a political tract on veganism, “Pictures of Meat,” in 2014. Not surprising, Jeremiah’s militant vegan mother is portrayed sympathetically, despite her penchant for spoiling restaurant goers’ appetites by “mimic[ing] the sound of the animal that was being eaten.” And one of the most disturbing walk-on characters in “Muck” sells children to the Moloch worshippers as if they were chickens destined for the Shabbat dinner table. “They believe in this, not that I understand it,” the merchant of Moloch declares, “but it’s their religion from time immemorial, so — what? — I should tell them what is and isn’t right?” This parody of cultural relativism exposes a plea for moral norms at the core of Burstein’s satire.
“Muck” thus offers more than a knowing burlesque of the Book of Jeremiah. This carnival ride of a novel holds up contemporary Israel to a funhouse mirror and, through its distortions, reveals the daily deformities of life under “King Bibi.” Jeremiah observes that his Jerusalem “was being built up at a monstrous rate and with amazing and grotesque insensitivity” to “the history, the people, the location.” For good measure, he notes that all the “real-estate billboards were in Egyptian, since no resident of Judah could afford to pay such high prices.” The newspapers report on endless kickbacks and tax evasion. Priests of the Temple torture Jeremiah with impunity, despite the protests of Rabbis for Human Rights. “Who’s funding you?” his interrogator demands.
But in Jeremiah’s Jerusalem the high and mighty rarely pay for their crimes, while citizens are hypnotized by the mini-spectacles produced for their screens: “In fact, everyone watched the idol-worship game shows on the Idol Worship Channel.” Instead of carved statues and hilltop grottoes, the people of Judah prostrate themselves before the mass media and the cult of celebrity. “[S]imply normal people with the same run-of-the-mill human contaminations that everyone is familiar with,” Jeremiah says, sighing. When Nebuchadnezzar arrives like a mafia don in a sleek black Mercedes to order Judah’s residents into exile, readers might be forgiven for thinking they deserve it.
Jeremiah gazes at the deportees as they head for Babylon by light rail: “Each deportee was scrutinized in a quiet, businesslike manner, and his baggage was inspected and his identity card was examined.” Here, Burstein touches on the third rail of Israeli politics: Holocaust memory. The use of trains to deport Jews obviously recalls the Shoah, but also may hint at the forced removal of Jewish residents of Gaza during the traumatic Hitnatkut — “disengagement” — in 2005. Burstein’s visions of exile may also be read as a comment on Israel today, where threats of dislocation and dispossession are not just past, but also ever present, for Jews and Arabs alike.
Alternately frustrating in its prolix digressions and rewarding in its conceptual daring, “Muck” is a tour de force. Don’t expect much consolation, however. “[E]xile and ruin were inevitable,” Jeremiah concludes. Few writers could hope to engage with the intricacies of the Book of Jeremiah. The formerly religious Burstein possesses the traditional textual knowledge to do so with bravado. More than that, “Muck” treats readers to nothing less than postmodern prophecy.
Adam Rovner is an associate professor of English and Jewish literature at the University of Denver and the author of ‘In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands Before Israel.’
In “Muck,” Dror Burstein Reimagines Book Of Jeremiah
Adam Rovner is Associate Professor of English and Jewish Literature at the University of Denver and the author of In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel (NYU 2014).