Visions and Revisions

The Messiah of Stockholm

by Cynthia Ozick
Knopf, 144 pp., $15.95

Foe

by J.M. Coetzee
Viking, 157 pp., $15.95

In The Messiah of Stockholm we have, for once, a truly intriguing mystery, quietly (and at times not so quietly) sounding those overtones or undertones of allegory or fable, of universality, without which no mystery will detain us for long.

At the beginning of The Magic Mountain young Hans Castorp was described as a “still unwritten page.” Cynthia Ozick’s character, Lars Andemening, although forty-two years old, is a conspicuously unfinished page, looking for an author to complete him; an “arrested soul” is how he sees himself. More specifically—believing himself to be an orphan of Polish origin adopted by a Swedish family—he is looking for his father, whom he has designated as Bruno Schulz, the Polish-Jewish author of two books of “peculiar tales” published in English translation as Cinnamon Shops (in the US, The Street of Crocodiles) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. We hear that in one of these stories of “losses, metamorphoses, degradations” the father turns into a crab and the mother boils it and serves it up to the family. Schulz lived in the Galician town of Drohobycz, and was gunned down there by the SS on November 19, 1942.

Lars, who is most at home under his quilt, makes a thin living as the Monday book reviewer of the Morgontörn, not a good day for books, and not a very good newspaper. According to his fellow reviewers, Lars’s trouble is Central Europe: he is “a Monday Faust,” or “prince of the indecipherable,” obsessed with people with names like Broch, Kiš, Musil, Canetti, Kundera, Schulz, inscrutable authors who hold little appeal for the healthy readers of the Wednesday and Friday culture pages. In return, though he cannot admire their intellectual tastes or literary principles, or lack of them, he loves in his colleagues “their maimed scribblers’ odor, pale and dimly prurient, a fuminess skimmed from the Morgontörn’s omnipresent staleness.”

Lars’s confederate and rival in the search for Schulz and Schulziana is Heidi Eklund, an aging German of dubious antecedents who once lived in the vicinity of a death camp. Now a bookseller, she contrives by uncertain means to procure rare Polish books for him, among them Schulz’s translation of The Trial. (Lars isn’t too pleased with this; he doesn’t care to see his putative father “in the role of the dummy on Franz Kafka’s lap.”) Her husband—for a long time Lars believes she has invented him since he is always away on business—turns out to be a skilled forger of passports; he gets people “in” and “out,” and likewise books and manuscripts. Heidi has also procured a Polish teacher for Lars, a refugee professor from Cracow, maybe a princess, maybe a Radziwill.

Lars, as the author states or understates, is “untouched by the comic muse.” The editor of the Morgontörn tells him that readers are complaining: “Your reviews are practically theology.” Theological is a harsher epithet even than existential or Faustian or surreal or …

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