Namdar, Ruby. “The Ruined House: A Novel”, Harper, 2017.
Merging the Real and the Unreal
I seldom get emotional while reading but every once in a while I read a novel that shakes the core of my being. Ruby Namdar’s “The Ruined House” did just that. By the end of the first paragraph, I knew that I was in for a read that would affect me profoundly. As I read on, I realized that I was reading a very special book in which the real and reveal merge. No wonder this book won the Sapir Prize Israel’s highest literary award. It is as if writer Ruby Namdar chose every word specifically for this story about materialism, tradition, faith, and the search for meaning in contemporary American life.
Andrew P. Cohen is professor of comparative culture at New York University and his life is good. His students love him, his research and writing has been published in noted and prestigious literary magazines and he is about to receive a faculty promotion . He and his ex-wife Linda are on good terms and his two adult children are proud of and adore their father. His girlfriend, Ann Lee (a former student half his age) provides wonderful friendship and love and we soon see that Cohen is no ordinary man. However, all of this changes when he begins to have strange visions that have something to do with an ancient religious ritual that will change his comfortable life. In just one year, his life falls apart as Cohen questions what he believes. As this takes place, we get a meditation on the modern world and see someone who is alone even though his life is surrounded by millions of people. Cohen is experiencing a mid-life crisis.
“The Ruined House” is about one man’s life and how his world is influenced an ancient legacy “that has always rumbled beneath the surface of our superficial world”. With gorgeous prose we are taken into the life of a man who leads a secular life but who is also haunted by religious visions. To say that this book is about Cohen’s mid-life crisis is not enough because it is about so much more—-
American Jewry’s search for meaning, faith in the modern and contemporary world, the Messianic idea of Judaism, life in exile and the struggle for finding foundations when one is surrounded by a base that is fragile. Namdar confronts the questions that have bothered Jews throughout history.
Throughout the novel, we find pages from an ancient Talmudic text that take us back to the time of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Hidden in the small letters of this narrative is the key to understand Andrew Cohen. As his world falls apart, he questions his beliefs. As he does this, we see New York intellectual life in the first years of the twenty-first century.
It all starts when little things start going wrong such as his developing a tire around his waist, he has spats with his girlfriend, and he becomes ill. Then he begins having powerful visions that greatly bother him and he begins to understand that he is living only on the surface and that he is not really real with anyone or about anything. Cohen’s mystical visions seem to hint at his being a Cohen and his visions include a priest possibly making a terrible mistake during a ritual. Of course, he could just be having a nervous breakdown or a psychotic break. Whatever is happening, it takes a toll on him.
The story is divided into books and with each book are pages of so-called Talmudic text that describe rituals that correlate to how Cohen lives his life and we see that he thinks of himself as above others much as did ancient High Priests of the Hebrew Bible. We begin to notice that Cohen He doesn’t value his family enough to spend much time with them, his friendships are superficial, his wealth comes from an inheritance and he is an intellectual, cultural, and social snob.
The book was written in Hebrew and beautifully translated by Evan Fallenberg. I was reminded of the translator’s own glorious novel, “Light Fell”.