Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Naked Madonna by Jan Wiese

The cover is a painting of a naked woman, with a little side boob, circa 16th century. Tag line on the cover reads: "...God has not forgotten us...he just lets us go to the devil..." It is a Norwegian novel, translated from the original by Tom Geddes and written in 1990. The story is set in 1989.

I purchased the book at a flea market in Tel Aviv, from a book booth surrounded by vintage clothing. The books were mostly Hebrew, although there were a few German and French novels. I scanned the titles of the English novels and I looked through a few. I bought one novel, which I have already read, called No Retreat. It is a clever British novel about a false future in which Nazi Germany had beaten the Allies and a government had been set up in America, bed its time and 35 years later, sent trained reconnaissance soldiers to take England back from the Germans. It was interesting. I didn't read the back of The Naked Madonna, but I did flip open the cover. There was an inscription, which I love. It read:
For Dear Susana, With love, (name unreadable). September 2000.

I had to buy it.

Before writing my review of the novel, I searched the Internet to find what others thought. Apparently, I am insecure in my own judgment. I found Damien Kelleher, who does roughly what I do, or am attempting to do. In the outset, he rejects the novel as anything remotely worth reading. Naturally, I was taken aback, considering I really enjoyed the book, liked the ending and had basically prepared a package to ship it off to a friend who I knew would feel the same. I continued reading his rather scathing review.

My British inner voice said, "By Jove, I understand why he's hated it. He completely got the plot wrong."

He writes that a painting is discovered in the rubble of a building collapse. On the contrary, the painting is destroyed and the novel is the telling of the narrator's discovery of the painting, it's history and how it led him to be imprisoned. Very captivating introduction, I might add.

The writer uses three voices, the man who rediscovers the painting because he has been reading uncatalogued papers from the depths of the Vatican, a storyteller from the 16th Century and the painter of the painting. Damien Kelleher skips over the storyteller's role, although he is integral to the plot's movement. Upon reading further, Kelleher has diagnosed the novel as one of obsession, whereas I read a theme of forgiveness(for oneself, and others) as a main topic. In fact, were I to write a theme for this novel, it might go something like..."You must first look upon yourself to see you are innocent of all error, before you can accuse and judge another of a mistake." Hubris got many a character into a poor position and the theme is reiterated through each voice in novel, as well as secondary characters. The end, without giving away anything, does not follow the typical pattern of a man learning from this mistakes and everything ends up hunky-dory in the end. The story's original narrator is, after all, imprisoned.

I like books where the author takes liberties with the standard formula of a novel. I like when there is something worth underlining, something I want to go back to read again.

I thought the book was about the philosophy of Catholicism. By the time I got to the third page, I realized it was a novel. Already on the first page, something had caught my eye:

"Yet, I would rather believe that God does exist, but that He has become weary. He no longer wants to hold His hand over the people that He once created in His own image."

Sit for a moment and think about that. It's frightening to those of us who are religious and function based on the idea that some omnipotent being is watching over us, protecting us, listening to us, hurting for us, working for us. On the other hand, it surely explains why the world looks the way it does and how supposedly righteous and godly people can be successful in the world, but be so utterly evil on the inside. Or why truly righteous and godly people are poor and suffer.

Not much has changed, though, in this vein throughout the course of time. So then what are the signs that God is weary of us? I would be weary of this world and what my people had done with it. But I'm not God, and therefore I don't think he becomes weary. He is not suffering time the way we do and he gets to see all the miracles that happen on earth, all of his creation and enjoy it. He's not merely plagued with FOX News, CNN and MSNBC discussing Sarah Palin's latest malfunction, or how another body was found mutilated or some other horrific tale of crime or injustice. He sees the whole picture, and maybe for him, it balances out. Maybe, even, good tips the scales. I like to think they might. Later, Wiese writes, "Faith cannot be explained. It disappears into the light of reason." And so it does.

By the 11th page, I am sucked in. I want to stay up and finish reading it in one night, but I worked early the next day. Nonetheless, I read over half of the book in one sitting.

This line struck me as particularly thoughtful: "I had arrived here after fleeing from myself."
I, too, arrived here because I was fleeing from something, although not myself. Originally, it was my job, a boss I detested. In reflection, I can see that I was fleeing from a life I didn't really want and running toward the life I did. If I ever truly wanted to be Jewish, I had to come to Israel. Although I complain that I feel less Jewish here, I have been forced to redefine who I am as a Jew, and that includes my love and passion for Israel. I was fleeing routine. I was fleeing common. I was fleeing 27 years of exactly the same.

"A man was overwhelmed by desire. He confused it with love." We do this often. We see something(someone) we want and we must possess it. We think we cannot be whole without. Rarely is that true. Often we give up the thing that was making us whole in the first place for a pathetic substitute. I believe this was also expressed in another fashion: The grass is always greener on the other side. In Wiese's novel, this line is the beginning of one fable the storyteller shares which is set in the marketplace of a small town in the mountains of Italy. An idyllic setting, with timeless characters, but told in a way I've never heard before. "I didn't tell him that feelings of love are linked to the moment." His storyteller has much to learn, but is aware of his disconnect with the world. He is aware of his judgment against it, when he, in fact, is the one so deserving of judgment. He's akin to a 16th Century Aesop. Aesop "the Romantic" was, purportedly and according to legend, an ugly slave. But he was kind to a priestess and was given the gift of clever storytelling, which he used to embarrass his master and seduce his wife. Much like the storyteller who easily hands out the morals, but struggles to make right himself.

Another one of the storyteller's morals? "Only things that are freely available become a habit."

A third moral to a different story: "Miracles can happen when you give yourself unreservedly." I think Wiese is convincing the narrator(and perhaps the reader) that there is a God after all, and he is gregariously involved in our lives.

I think Wiese crafts a different kind of novel, one the reader must work a little for to achieve ultimate understanding and the reader must also use his or her reflective skills, because Wiese did not write the tale to entertain. On the contrary, he wrote it to provoke. The painter writes the stories of the storyteller. The storyteller finds his own stories and those of the painter written. He puts them together. The narrator(the imprisoned man) reads the tale, which affects his life and creates a third stream to the tale. Now, the reader is reading the tale of the narrator who read the tale of the storyteller and the painter. What is the reader's part in the text?

That...you can only find out for yourself.

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