A Novel Takes Talmudic Shape
By Robert Majzels
The Mercury Press, 110 pages, $19.95.
Quebec translator, playwright and novelist Robert Majzels has composed his most demanding work in his third novel, “Apikoros Sleuth,” as he stretches the genre to its limits. Replete with Joycean puns, neologisms and vertical, horizontal, and marginal lines in Hebrew, Aramaic, English, French, Chinese and Greek, the novel’s columnar construction imitates the book’s cover and setting of the murder mystery — a tenement. An amalgam of mystery and talmudic format, high- and low-brow, scatology and eschatology, “Apikoros Sleuth” defies the reader’s expectations, challenging the act of reading itself.
On the surface, this avant-garde non-novel dazzles in its use of collage, montage, pastiche, palimpsest and shifts in print size. These impossible juxtapositions underscore the tensions between the pagan and the sacred in a chorus filled with dissonance and cacophony.
The several characters in search of an author or a plot — Betty Boop; a dentist named Pigafetta; Legrand; Mustapha; Howley; Giltgestalt (Shtick), and Booger Rooney — don’t develop in any familiar fashion beyond their cartoon-like names. Since there are no discernable characters or plot in this “novel,” the reader has to readjust to different strategies of reading that call attention to details of typography. Some of the pages resemble optometrists’ charts; others involve the zigzag of a game of chess. Majzels’s kabbalistic shape shifting focuses on the act of reading. The reader becomes the sleuth, tracking the murder of narrative in a maze of Semitics, semiotics and semi-optics.
A kabbalistic hand replete with Hebrew lettering appears on the first page as if to warn the reader about the physicality of turning the pages of Majzels’s postmodern text, fingering and eyeing printed matter. Indeed, the first quotation from Edmond Jabès in the right margin alerts us to this method of reading: “Mark the first page of a book with a red ribbon, for the wound is inscribed at its beginning.” Like a bloodhound, the red lettering in Chapter 63, 38a, picks up this hint, which is splashed in a blood-like Rorschach imprint on page 38b. The excerpt from Jabès’ Le livre des questions crowds the right margin of Majzels’s central text: “Story? Who would tell it?” These questions in turn are tracked and reinforced by interrogations in the left column: “What constitutes a tenement? At what point?” Majzels unravels and obfuscates these questions throughout the body of the book.
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s statement, “If a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world,” serves as an epigraph to this anti-novel. “Apikoros Sleuth” is explosive, but its ethics are as difficult to find as its victims and murderers, for the experience of reading its pages is akin to listening to Schoenberg’s 12-tone music. The constant refrain of “And yet. Not yet,” points to talmudic dialectic and deferment of any final answers in this epistemological novel or radical inquiry into the nature of knowing.
Majzels is a translator, and the answer to the question of his novel’s meaning lies in translation — an intermediate state between languages, cultures, genres and categories. Only in multilingual Montreal — where A.M. Klein started out and Régine Robin’s “The Wanderer” continues the process of Yiddish-French dialogue — could Majzels translate French experience into Hebrew history and back again. In this remote corner of the Diaspora, he exposes whatever gets lost in translation (including occasional errors in Hebrew).
Majzels’s private eye negotiates between the “I” of solipsism and “Thou” of ethics; his tour de force is not for the faint of heart, head or eye looking for unlikely answers to this dead-end whodunit. Although crime doesn’t always pay, Majzels breathes new life into exiled vessels. A limited deluxe edition will become a collector’s item to grace bookshelves and coffee tables alike.