BY DARA HORN
Bernard Malamud is invariably grouped among the best American Jewish novelists of the twentieth century, but it might be more insightful to call him one of the best Christian ones. While most of his characters are Jewish, the plots of his novels
(to take two examples) are closer to the classic Christian narrative structure: a man suffers, is transformed through his suffering, and at last finds salvation. Malamud’s Jewish characters also tend to fall into place with the canonical Christian view of what it means to be Jewish—that is, to be outcast, to be alienated, to suffer while awaiting redemption. These novels might be called narratives about the workings of grace.
isn’t. It is a dark fable of the end of the world, and unlike most apocalyptic literature, it offers no redemption. In Malamud’s version of the endgame, the world has been destroyed by nuclear war. But through a divine error, a single human being has survived at the bottom of the sea. Calvin Cohn, a rabbinical
school dropout, is a scientist who was working underwater off an oceanography vessel at the time of the destruction—and finds himself the accidental Noah of the second Flood. His role as the new Noah becomes more obvious to the reader when he returns to his abandoned ship and discovers another survivor on board, a colleague’s experimental chimpanzee. When Cohn’s ark surfaces and alights on an island, other surviving apes emerge, forming the beginnings of a new community. Cohn makes an inspiring attempt to restart evolution and create a new society, one better than the one that destroyed itself. What is surprising, to the reader expecting literary grace, is that he fails.
is an exceedingly strange book, full of enormous risks. You are warned, gentle reader, that this is a novel in which an entire scene involves a group of talking chimpanzees at a Passover seder—and from there, it only gets weirder. Large parts of this book are absurd, infused with a sly humor that can trick you into thinking you are laughing at the book instead of with it. But in fact the premise of the book is a cosmic joke. God claims to have let Cohn survive by mistake, but as the book progresses, it becomes clear that this “mistake” is more deliberate than Cohn thinks. And the joke on the reader is that the novel isn’t nearly as absurd as it seems.
One major difference between Judaism and Christianity is that Judaism has no concept of grace—no possibility of unmerited divine favor to help man
achieve the awesome tasks placed before him. In modern literature with a so-called Christian dimension, grace is often the deus ex machina that makes for happy endings in stories for grownups. (Consider a book like
Crime and Punishment
, in which a morally compromised protagonist suffers and struggles for hundreds of pages and then, in the novel’s final chapters, embraces Jesus.) Whether as a spiritual phenomenon or a literary device, grace is beautiful, moving, comforting, uplifting. What it often isn’t, especially to the modern reader, is convincing.
In real life, as opposed to redemptive fiction, a happy ending is an oxymoron: real happiness is not an ending, but a beginning. Our real happily-ever-afters are made happy by the
, by our awareness of the potential that lies just beyond the present moment. In this novel about the end of the world, there is no grace, no possibility of divine rescue to propel the story toward a happy ending. Malamud’s style here is spare, stark, and merciless. The perspective is Cohn’s, and his earnestness in trying to rebuild the world comes through in the simplicity of the novel’s language: “God said nothing. Cohn said Kaddish.” As the novel’s story develops in simple sentences that often resonate like verse, Cohn’s prayers and hopes merge with the reader’s, until the reader shares in Cohn’s surprise at his own fate. It would be easy to interpret
as a straight allegory for the Jewish experience in the last century: the sole survivors of actual Holocausts scour the world for a new home,
only to find themselves targeted again for destruction. But the novel’s aims are much broader than that. On the island, Cohn attempts to help his fellow primates avoid another devastation by giving them a list of near-biblical admonitions. The first is “Thou shalt not kill,” but the second is more unexpected: “Note: God is not love, God is God. Remember Him.”
As the only man left in a murderous world, Cohn does not believe in love. Rather, he believes in a divine witness who demands a constant human effort to repair the world, even when the odds of success are exceedingly slim. This conviction is the most honest and unconditional form of belief Cohn will ever know. For as he soon finds out, love fails, kindness fails, humanity fails; as the psalmist put it, all mortals are undependable. Trust in our fellow human beings is a misplaced trust. In the end, what remains is not divine grace or even love, but the far more meaningful divine gift of free will. The responsibility that accompanies free will is all that makes anyone worthy of being made in the image of God.
, published in 1982, was the last novel Malamud completed before his death in 1986. One senses that he was willing to risk everything in it, and not every risk pays off. But in this final moment of a brilliant career, the reader can feel a trembling urgency just below the surface: a writer’s desperate need to shatter the rosy one-way mirror that stands between literature and life.
This is that story
The heaving high seas were laden with scum
The dull sky glowed red
Dust and ashes drifted in the wind circling the earth
The burdened seas slanted this way, and that, flooding the scorched land under a daylight moon
A black oily rain rained
No one was there
At the end, after the thermonuclear war between the Djanks and Druzhkies, in consequence of which they had destroyed themselves, and, madly, all other inhabitants of the earth, God spoke through a glowing crack in a bulbous black cloud to Calvin Cohn, the paleologist, who of all men had miraculously survived in a battered oceanography vessel with sails, as the swollen seas tilted this way and that;
““Don’t presume on Me a visible face, Mr. Cohn, I am not that kind, but if you can, imagine Me. I regret to say it was through a minuscule error that you escaped destruction.
Though mine, it was not a serious one; a serious mistake might have jammed the universe. The cosmos is so conceived that I myself don’t know what goes on everywhere. It is not perfection although I, of course, am perfect. That’s how I arranged my mind.
““And that you, Mr. Cohn, happen to exist when no one else does, though embarrassing to Me, has nothing to do with your once having studied for the rabbinate, or for that matter, having given it up.
““That was your concern, but I don’t want you to conceive any false expectations. Inevitably, my purpose is to rectify the error I conceived.
““I have no wish to torment you, only once more affirm cause and effect. It is no more than a system within a system, yet I depend on it to maintain a certain order. Man, after failing to use to a sufficient purpose his possibilities, and my good will, has destroyed himself; therefore, in truth, so have you.””
Cohn, shivering in his dripping rubber diving suit, complained bitterly:
“After Your first Holocaust You promised no further Floods.” “Never again shall there be a Flood to destroy the earth.” That was Your Covenant with Noah and all living creatures. Instead, You turned the water on again. Everyone who wasn’t consumed in fire is drowned in bitter water, and a Second Flood covers the earth.”
God said this: ““All that was pre-Torah. There was no such thing as Holocaust, only cause and effect. But after I had created man I did not know how he would fail Me next, in what manner of violence, corruption, blasphemy, beastliness,
sin beyond belief. Thus he defiled himself. I had not foreseen the extent of it.
““The present Devastation, ending in smoke and dust, comes as a consequence of man’s self-betrayal. From the beginning, when I gave them the gift of life, they were perversely greedy for death. At last I thought, I will give them death because they are engrossed in evil.
“”They have destroyed my handiwork, the conditions of their survival: the sweet air I gave them to breathe; the fresh water I blessed them with, to drink and bathe in; the fertile green earth. They tore apart my ozone, carbonized my oxygen, acidified my refreshing rain. Now they affront my cosmos. How much shall the Lord endure?
““I made man to be free, but his freedom, badly used, destroyed him. In sum, the evil overwhelmed the good. The Second Flood, this that now subsides on the broken earth, they brought on themselves. They had not lived according to the Covenant.
““Therefore I let them do away with themselves. They invented the manner; I turned my head. That you went on living, Mr. Cohn, I regret to say, was no more than a marginal error. Such things may happen.””
“Lord,” begged Calvin Cohn, a five-foot-six man in his late thirties, on his wet knees. “It wasn’t as though I had a choice. I was at the bottom of the ocean attending to my work when the Devastation struck. Since I am still alive it would only be fair if You let me live. A new fact is a new condition. Though I deeply regret man’s insult to a more worthy fate, still I would consider it a favor if You permit me to live.”
““That cannot be my intent, Mr. Cohn. My anger has diminished but my patience is not endless. In the past I often forgave them their evil; but I shall not now. No Noah this time, no exceptions, righteous or otherwise. Though it hurts Me to say it, I must slay you; it is just. Yet because of my error, I will grant you time to compose yourself, make your peace. Therefore live quickly—a few deep breaths and go your way. Beyond that lies nothing for you. These are my words.“”
“It says in Sanhedrin,” Cohn attempted to say, “‘He who saves one life, it is as if he saved the world.’” He begged for another such favor.
““Although the world was saved it could not save itself. I will not save it again. I am not a tribal God; I am Master of the Universe. That means more interrelated responsibilities than you can imagine.“”
Cohn then asked for a miracle.
““Miracles,”” God answered, ““go only so far. Once you proclaim it, a miracle is limited. Man would need more than a miracle.””
The Lord snapped the crack in the cloud shut. He had been invisible, light from which a voice extruded; no sign of Godcrown, silverbeard, peering eye—the image in which man had sought his own. The bulbous cloud sailed imperiously away, vanishing.
A dark coldness descended. Either the dust had thickened or night had fallen. Calvin Cohn was alone, forlorn. When he raised his head the silence all but cracked his neck.
As he struggled to stand, he lifted his fist at the darkened sky. “God made us who we are.”
He danced in a shower of rocks; but that may have been his imagining. Yet those that hit the head hurt.
Cohn fell to his knees, fearing God’s wrath. His teeth chattered; he shivered as though touched on the neck by icy fingers. Taking back his angry words, he spoke these: “I am not a secularist although I have doubts. Einstein said God doesn’t dice with the universe; if he could believe it maybe I can. I accept Your conditions, but please don’t cut my time too short.”
The rusty, battered vessel with one broken mast drifted on slanted seas. Of all men only Calvin Cohn lived on, passionate to survive.
Not long after dawn, a faded rainbow appeared in the soiled sky. Although a wedge-shaped section of its arch seemed broken off, as though a triangular mouth had taken a colorful bite, Cohn wept yet rejoiced. It seemed a good sign and he needed one.
The oceanographic vessel
a renovated iron-hulled, diesel-powered, two-masted schooner, of whose broad-sailed masts one remained erect, drifted unsteadily on the water as the Flood abated—the man-made Flood, Cohn had been instructed, not God-given.
The waters receded. They had risen high enough to overwhelm the remnants of the human race; now were slowly ebbing. He imagined the stricken vessel floating over graveyards of intricate-spired drowned cities—Calcutta, Tokyo; London on the water-swept British island. But he would not be surprised if they (he and the she-boat) were still drifting in the outraged Pacific, under whose angry waves he had
sat in a small deep-sea submersible, observing the sea floor at the instant the ocean flared, and shuddered, and steamed; as nuclear havoc struck, causing a mountainous tidal wave that swallowed and spewed forth the low-lying, rusty-hulled research schooner.
Shortly thereafter Cohn had risen from the sea.
His scientist colleagues—he pictured in particular Dr. Walther Bünder departing hastily with his previously packed suitcase, his Cuban stogie clamped in his teeth—and the officers and crew who administered the ship had, seemingly without grace or goodness, disappeared. Their disregard of Cohn had outraged him, though he now admitted that in leaving him behind they had preserved him.
He had descended to the bottom of the sea twenty minutes before the missiles began to fly at each other; and when he rose from the ocean floor, the instant, totally catastrophic war had ended, and mankind had destroyed itself. The lifeboats and most of the life jackets were gone—a few left strewn on the deck. Cohn found a yellow rubber raft that had been inflated and left as though for him; he therefore forgave them their panic-stricken desertion.
He had dangled in the swaying submersible it seemed for hours after the PERIL light had flashed and the buzzer raucously signaled ASCEND. The little submarine swung in insane sweeping arcs. Its pendulous motion churned his stomach and filled it with terror until he felt the steam-powered winch begin to draw him slowly up, stopping several minutes, then drawing him up.
It was a frightful ascent. He watched thousands of maddened fish banging their blind mouths against his lit window.
Cohn snapped off the lamp as the submersible moved up luminously in the watery blackness. When he reached the deck on the surface of the sea, no one appeared to secure the tiny submarine and help him out. He had bobbed around in the frothy waves, trying to escape, hopelessly seasick, before he was able to emerge from the hatch and plop, as he vomited, into the water.
Cohn pulled himself up the metal ladder on the hull of the
. The four lifeboats were gone, their ropes dangling like spaghetti strings. The sky was smeared with ashes and the reflection of flames. The ocean was thick with channels of fish scum and floating animal bodies. When the smell of dead flesh assailed him, Cohn at last knew what had happened. He felt sick horror and a retching contempt of the human race. Dozens of steel missiles had plunged to the bottom of the sea and lay there like smoking turds.
Why he had survived Cohn could not guess. He had no idea how long he might go on. It seemed useless to take a radiation reading. Some had lived after Hiroshima; some had not. What comes will come.
In the communications cabin he read a scribbled message on a warped piece of cardboard. Cohn learned what he already knew: Humanity had done itself in.
The rainbow, he remembered, was God’s sign to Noah that He would not pour another deluge on the earth. So much for signs, for Covenants.
Dead souls floated on stagnant seas. The
drifted through shoals of rotting fish, and plowed through blackened seaweed in lakes of sludge.
The oceanographic schooner, its lightning-split mast draped in fallen sails, drifted close to volcanic shores as Cohn slept the heavyhearted sleep of the dead. It sailed away from the soaking land before he woke.
He awoke mourning human being, human existence, all the lives lost. He listed everyone he could remember, and the names of those he did not know whose names he had heard. He mourned civilization, goodness, daring, joy; and all that man had done well.
Cohn was enraged with God Who had destroyed His own dream. The war was man’s; the Flood, God’s. Cohn heard thunder when he thought of God and sometimes hid.
The sky was old—how often had the earth changed as the same sky looked on? Never had there been so much space in space. He had never been so desolate.
Cohn diligently pasted stamps in albums, recalling nations lost; he pitched darts at a red-and-white target in the games room. He read till his eyes were blobs of glue stuck to words. He listened to records on his father the rabbi’s portable phonograph. He kept, so to speak, going.
The boat’s engines had ceased throbbing; there was no electricity. It seemed useless to attempt to activate the rusty generator aboard; but there was bottled gas to cook with in the galley.
On good days Cohn told himself stories, saying the Lord would let him live if he spoke the right words. Or lived the right life. But how was that possible without another human life around? Only God and he “contending,” Cohn attempting to evade His difficult nature?
(Thunder groaning, Cohn hiding.)
No way of outdoing the Lord Who had invented Himself into being. The God of beginnings; He wanted to begin, therefore had begun. Spontaneous combustion? Beginnings were far up the line from First Causes. Therefore where had God begun?
Who was He? You had to see His face to say in Whose image man had been fashioned; and no one could. Moses, who had come close, saw Him through fog and flame. Or from a cleft in a huge rock where the Lord had placed him. And God, approaching the rock in his own light, covered the cleft with His hand, until He had passed by, then removed His hand and Moses clearly saw the Lord’s endless back.
Shall I someday see His face? God seemed to feel the need to talk to men. He needed worship, and even faithless men had hungered to worship Him.
Cohn added up columns of random figures. He began and tore up a notebook journal. He trotted back and forth, for exercise, along the 152-foot deck, hurdling obstacles, the fallen mast, yards of canvas sail, instruments of observation, hauling, drilling; tons of thick ropes covered with seaweed, barnacles, starfish, sea detritus; Cohn, despite his small size and slightly bowed legs, had once been an athlete in Staten Island High School.
The radio was dead. He talked to himself. He missed the human voice.
“What can one expect in this life of desolation ?”
“To be alive alone forever ?”
—It takes one rib to make an Eve.