Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, August 5, 2011

Joshua Cohen, _A Heaven of Others_

LITERARY HEAVENS, FROM Dante to Mitch Albom, gravitate towards explanation, clearing up the big questions, reconciliations, and the like, but Joshua Cohen's afterlife in A Heaven for Others is if anything stranger, more bewildering, and more abounding in loose ends than ordinary earthly existence.

On his tenth birthday, Jonathan Schwartzstein of Jerusalem is in a shoe store with his father when a suicide bomber crashes in. The explosion kills Jonathan, but due to some cosmic missed exit he winds up in the Muslim heaven, complete with houris, camels, and a K'aba ("Schawartzstein" could be translated "Black Stone"). He sets off on a pilgrimage to find Muhammad and learn how and why he is there, but Muhammad is unlocatable. He does come across a boy his own age who seems be the suicide bomber who crashed into the shoe store.

There is a risk of sentimentality in this scenario (the text is dated "Yom Hazikaron, 2004," an Israeli holiday honoring fallen soldiers and civilian victims of terrorism), and Cohen is not wholly successful in avoiding it (e.g., p. 142). But the book's uniqueness and strangeness prevent one from drawing ready conclusions. Why the occasional shift from Jonathan's first-person narration to that of an omniscient third person? (God? Cohen?) Why the three poems, titled "Alef," "Beit," and again "Alef," prefaced by designs by Michael Hafftka based on those three letters, which spell "ABA," that is, "father"? Why the epigraph from Russian Hebrew poet Saul Tchernichovsky, about a student acquiring a disgust for what his teachers most want him to learn?

And what can we make of Jonathan's gnomic utterances such as "Limitation is what I now understand to be the sole attribute of God [...]"? That the lesson we emphatically learn about God is that God is a God of some (us) but not all (them)? Or what about "heaven must be understood as borderless if it is to have any borders at all" or "an eternal boy matures eternally"? We are far indeed from Albom or Alice Sebold here -- as we are from Beatrice's painstakingly precise scholastic commentaries.

Plenty to ponder, then; fair enough. But I was most taken with the final section, "A 'Metaphor'," in which Jonathan recalls his bath on what was to be the last night of his life in the river-overflowing-its-banks prose of Witz.

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