Beer, Onions, and Damnation

The Wandering Jew

by Stefan Heym
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 298 pp., $14.95

The authorized version has it that Lucifer and the angels loyal to him fell through pride, having set themselves up as equal to the Almighty, and thereafter sought revenge by seducing God’s newly created favorites, mankind. (See Milton for details.) The German novelist Stefan Heym has now come up with an alternative version. According to this, Lucifer and the others, including the archangel Ahasuerus or Ahasverus, whose name means “beloved by God,” were expelled because they refused to bow down before man, that curiously arbitrary invention—Lucifer on the not unreasonable grounds of superior birth and qualities, and Ahasverus out of pity for man, since they both saw how he would turn out. “It was such a great hope,” sighs Ahasverus as they fall toward the depths. “Such a beautiful world! And such a beautiful man!”

And so they both abide their time, Ahasverus fretted by his “Jewish impatience”: “little angel,” Lucifer calls him, “a regular saviour of mankind,” unrest personified, driven by the desire to change things. Whereas he, Lucifer, insists—as would any expert in dialectical thinking—that every thesis carries within itself its antithesis and one simply has to wait for things to change in their own time, “their own, God-given time,” as he puts it.

In time, and in accordance with the medieval legend, Jesus, bearing the cross, pauses wearily outside the house of the cobbler Ahasverus. But Heym’s Ahasverus, eager to redeem the world through action, tells Jesus that he possesses a sword of God, whereby the soldiers can be put to flight and Christ lead the people of Israel to victory, “as is written in the book.” But Christ murmurs that his kingdom is not of this world, and the meek shall inherit the earth. In anger and despair, Ahasverus, though he loves Reb Joshua, as he calls him, drives Christ away from his doorstep: “Get going, you idiot!” Christ then speaks the words that initiated the legend of the Wandering Jew: “You shall remain here and tarry till I come.”

In Stefan Heym’s brilliant theological fantasy, simultaneously profound and comic, spiritual and fleshly, we subsequently catch sight of Ahasverus in different guises, at various times and in various places, including the Warsaw ghetto, where he suffers death without dying. For the larger part the story shifts between the sixteenth century and the present. As is generally the case, however, the devil has the best tunes, and the liveliest passages concern a mysterious, scruffy but powerful clubfooted hunchback named Leuchtentrager, which translated into Latin makes “Lucifer.” He takes under his wing a dim but sharply self-seeking young cleric, Eitzen, whose career, by virtue of his knowledge of the future, he promotes with outstanding success. Eitzen can never tell whether his friend is being serious or not when he advances what seems like unorthodox theology:

But I have a liking for the snake. The snake saw that God had equipped man with two hands to work and a head to think with, and to what good purpose…

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