Burstein, Dror. “Muck: A Novel”, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.
A Tale of Jerusalem
Two poets in Jerusalem have no idea that their lives are going to change forever. Jeremiah is struggling and wondering that his becoming a writer is just a waste of time. He had just been criticized by the great critic, Broch. Mattaniah is just the opposite; he is ready to give what it takes to be a successful writer but (there is always a “but”) he has a secret that no one should ever know. Mattaniah’s late father was king of Judah.
Jeremiah despairs and as he does he has a vision that Jerusalem is doomed and therefore Mattaniah will not only be forced to ascend to the throne but will thereafter witness his people slaughtered and exiled. Jeremiah worries over telling this to his friend and wonders if this could be a false prophecy. He knows what can happen by imposing beliefs upon someone else and to paint a bleak picture of the future is surely not satisfying. How can he tell a friend and rival that his future is bleak? What grudges and biases can come out of this? Then there is the question of whether vocalizing a prediction gives it credence. If it does come true, what becomes of Jeremiah? As Dror Bernstein asks, is he “a seer, or just a schmuck?”
By now you might have guessed that this is a retelling of the story of Jeremiah that also looks at “the dispute between poetry and power, between faith and practicality, between haves and have-nots.” It is a brilliant, comedic and subversive. There are not many who can get away with retelling stories that are centuries old and part of religion but Burstein does so wonderfully.
If you have read any Philip Roth, you see the influence immediately; the satire is very strong This is also suspense and a story that is relevant to the modern nation of Israel. Once again what Jeremiah has to say is not paid attention to. There is brilliance in bringing together historical allusion with realism and ancient events are reset in modern times. There is no limit to the amount of innovation here but we see that the author had a great time writing this book that is filled with puns and illusions. The story is both strange and strangely apocalyptic as it dissects “the joys, horrors, and paradoxes of trying to live a moral life in the modern world—let alone in ancient/modern Israel.”