Shimon Adaf’s Postmodern Fantasy, pt. 1

The Israeli writer Shimon Adaf turned 50 this summer. If no longer a wunderkind—in his 20s he had already won recognition for his first books, wrote lyrics for major Israeli rock musicians, co-founded a literary journal, and became an editor at a prominent publishing house—he remains an academic favorite (and university lecturer himself), considered by many literary critics and theorists to be one of the most talented and compelling Israeli writers of his generation.

Certainly, it is impossible to talk about Israeli fantasy today without engaging Adaf’s work. He has published numerous novels of fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction, and provocative blends of all three. In addition he has encouraged other speculative fiction writers in his capacity as editor, and translated Philip K. Dick into Hebrew.

Adaf’s translation of Dick’s The Man in the High Castle

Yet even as he has published close to twenty books,[1] including several poetry collections, and won a number of literary honors (his latest novel was a finalist for Israel’s prestigious Sapir Prize), there is also a sense among not a few readers of Adaf fatigue.

For two decades, Adaf has seemed on the verge of producing a great work of Hebrew fantastika. He is a particularly fine poet, with tremendous lyrical gifts. Yet his fantasy and science fiction novels (I have not read his detective trilogy, now translated into English) all tend to recede into self-referentiality and cryptic language games, gesturing towards accomplishment unfulfilled.

When I began to read Adaf over a decade ago, I focused on the strength and promise of his novels, and overlooked the flaws or attributed them to a kind of writing that erupted from acute personal sorrow. Half a dozen books later, I began to suspect that Adaf is not interested in (or perhaps capable of) producing a truly great work of fantasy. His fantasy and science fiction, while occasionally studded with passages of beautiful and atmospheric lyricism, and kernels of clever references and self-referentiality, are ultimately literature department conceits, clothed in genre tropes and not particularly well worked out in either philosophical or novelistic terms.

Some critics have lost patience with this by now all-too-familiar post-modernism. I’m not sure if the brutality of this take-down of Adaf by the writer Yehuda Vizan will come through for non-Hebrew readers via Google Translate, but it is an extraordinary demolition job, not least because its charges are usually warranted.

Adaf’s latest novel, Ha-lashon noshlah (Tongue Untangled, 2021), is his most ambitious fantasy novel to date, and one in which I had hoped his years of experimentation would finally yield the superb book he always seems to promise. It is certainly a novel in which Adaf doubles down on the fantasy-tinged postmodernism he has so long been producing, taking it further than he ever has.

In fact, Ha-lashon noshlah is a six hundred page fantasy novel about. . . Adaf’s own 2006 children’s fantasy novel Ha-lev ha-kavur (The Buried Heart). So before I discuss the 2021 meta-fiction, let’s look at its ur-text.

The plot of Ha-lev ha-kavur is straightfoward children’s fantasy, even cliché—though part of a significant wave of fantasy writing in Israel. Two brave eleven year olds, a boy and a girl, fight a sorcerous dark lord who wants to enslave the world.

The boy, Emir, is an ordinary, even hapless kid who learns that he is really the prophesied hero who will defeat the dark lord. The girl, Talia, is the active and capable girl-boss, in contrast to Emir’s frequent obtuseness and passivity. The two are aided by benevolent supernatural beings, acquire necessary magical items, discover the nature of their true selves, and so are able to defeat the dark lord and save the world.

So far, so familiar.

Yet the dark lord here is Amraphel, a king mentioned in chapter 14 of the book of Genesis. The Bible recounts how four kings, including “Amraphel king of Shinar” (Gen. 14:1) defeat an alliance of five other kings. In the course of the battle, the victors carry off the patriarch Abraham’s nephew Lot, who was living in the area. We might not think of Abraham—then still known as Abram—as a warrior type, but we are told that he takes 318 men into battle against the armies of the four victorious kings, routs their forces in a daring nighttime attack, and rescues his nephew.

Antonio Tempesta’s 1613 etching of Abram’s night attack

Biblical exegetes have generally given more attention to the two events immediately after it: the appearance of a mysterious priest-king named Melchizedek who blesses Abram, and, in the chapter following, the even more mysterious ritual of the “pieces,” in which God instructs Abram to cut up a series of animals as prelude to a grand covenantal promise to Abram and his descendants.

From this elliptical material Adaf spins a radical new mythology. The Amraphel of Adaf is the son of an angel and a sorceress, and lived in an ancient kingdom of magicians called Ob (a biblical term for magic). Amraphel’s magic was so powerful and destructive that the people of Ob rose up against him and tried to kill him. Amraphel slaughtered the kingdom’s populace and its king—but not before the king’s son, the biblical Abram, was smuggled by loyal servants out of the kingdom and placed with a foster father, Terach, who is the father of Abram in the biblical text. Adaf’s Abram swore he would one day overthrow Amraphel and his sorcery.

Amraphel captured the three great prophetesses of Ob. When they warned him that he would win the war described in Genesis 14 but be defeated in turn by Abram, the enraged Amraphel chopped the women into pieces—a particularly weird take on the covenant of the pieces in Genesis 15—and from the parts stitched together a gruesome Frankenstein woman he names Achotophel.

The warning of the prophetesses was borne out. What we know as Genesis 14 was really a magical battle in which Abram, a mighty wizard wielding the flaming sword of Genesis 3:24, defeated Amraphel. Like Tolkien’s Sauron, Amraphel became a shadow, and escaped with Achotophel to plot his return, and three thousand years later we have the beginning of Ha-lev ha-kavur and the story of Emir and Talia.

Adaf is hardly alone in using the Bible as a jumping off point for fantasy mythology, even if this magical backstory is particularly idiosyncratic. More connected to contemporary Israeli experience is a description we get of what Emir thinks when he first sees the look in the dark lord’s eyes:

Only once in his life had Emir seen a similar look, in one of the television broadcasts of a terrorist attack that his parents, especially his mom, had forbid him from watching. Against the background of a bus turned on its side, charred and twisted, and a group of people running around in panic, the television reporter was interviewing a medic called to the site of the bombing. Among the victims, the medic recognized the features, distorted by fire and fear, of his brother; the shock of this discovery was still on the medic’s face an hour afterwards as the reporter asked him what had happened. Emir thought at that moment that he would never forget those eyes, which continued to stare at him even after he turned his face away from that abyss of pain. Emir gazed at the television, hypnotized by those eyes, and did not hear his mother come into the living room to find him weeping noiselessly, tears running down his cheeks.

Emir lives in a dusty, development town in the south of Israel named Mavo Yam (Seagate). Adaf has made clear that Mavo Yam is a stand-in for his own home town of Sderot: also in southern Israel, also economically struggling, and also with a predominantly working class population of mizrahim: Jews of middle eastern and north African background.

One notable difference between the real Sderot and the fictional Mavo Yam is that the latter does not appear to be affected by the years of missile attacks from the Palestinians of Gaza, who regularly fire rockets and mortars into towns such as Sderot, which lies just a short walk from the Gaza Strip. This longstanding trauma is not mentioned in the book, to the great fortune of Mavo Yam and its residents—which must deal with the magical threat from Amraphel but not the military threat from Hamas.

Sderot bomb shelter

Emir’s family name is Mor-Tal (dripping myrrh). His father, a lover of language and wordplay, chose his son’s name as a pun: “a mere mortal.” Alas, Emir lives down to his name and is “the most ordinary boy in the world.” His appearance, we are told, is forgettable—though this being Israel we are also told that he has “smooth black hair, brown skin, wide nostrils, slightly elongated almond eyes, their pupils the color of honey.” “If there’s anything special about Emir,” his father says with some disappointment, “it’s that there’s nothing special about him. Emir is the epitome of normalcy. He is so ordinary that he’s extraordinary.”

Of course, Emir turns out not to be ordinary at all. He finds out that he is in fact the ta’ar or (light blade), the prophesied one who has the power to locate and reveal the hebra’ot, embodiments of magical language that Amraphel wants to use to augment his own sorcery and conquer humanity. The most powerful hebra’ot are hidden in human dreams, to which Emir has access. Needing Emir for his plan, Amraphel steals Emir’s heart and buries it in a garden at the center of his redout in Shinar—not the biblical Shinar but an extra-dimensional mansion that requires a ride on a fiery chariot to get to.

Emir’s plucky classmate Talia finds out that she, too, has magic powers. Her powers allow her to learn the novel’s several backstories and inform Emir what is going on and what he needs to do. There is a rather grisly climactic battle with Ampraphel who at one point manifests as a monstrous cloud of mouths and feelers a la H. P. Lovecraft. Talia grabs the flaming sword of Genesis and zaps him, buying Emir enough time to channel all the dreams of humanity into Amraphel, which destroys him.

Despite its mythological reach, Ha-lev ha-kavur isn’t a very well-realized novel. The narrative proceeds arbitrarily, with sudden, convenient realizations on the part of the characters and clumsy backstory infodumps as necessary for the author’s plot turns. For all of the Sderot touches and nods to North African Jewish identity, the characters are very generic.

But then Adaf’s real interest, which he returns to obsessively in all of his fantasy and science fiction novels, is not character or plot, but rather the subject of language itself. The heart of The Buried Heart is not its child heroes or its quasi-biblical mythology or its Israeli setting, but a conviction that the only true subject is language, which Adaf understands as a, perhaps the, primal, metaphysical force in the universe.

a conviction that the only true subject is language

In fact, another key element of the novel’s backstory involves a lost book by the philosopher Benedict Spinoza that theorizes that the language of creation is the primal language of the angels, a perfect language that expresses the true nature of every thing since each word in this language creates the thing it speaks. Human beings, lacking the language of the angels, fashioned their own secondary, mediated language that allows us to invent secondary realities: magic, if you like, or fantasy, or poetry. This is Adaf’s real subject, which is part of why the characters and plot of his novels can feel oddly cold and arbitrary.

Although critics and reviewers have attributed to Adaf a “kabbalistic” infatuation with language, his conception of language is actually quite secular, drawing less on Jewish mysticism than on French postmodernism. It is not a plenitude that manifests God’s presence, but a mournful playing in the emptiness, a tenuous placeholder. Indeed, there is no God in his putatively biblical YA fantasy, the angels are dodgy, and even Abraham is dismissed by both Emir and Talia as “stupid.”

In contrast to his poetry, Adaf’s novels rarely show us the power of language—instead they tell us, with an anxious insistence, that language is mysterious and magical. It is a bit as if Tolkien, rather than using his philological genius to imagine a Middle Earth and give it vivid life, instead wrote his fantasies about philology. There is a hole in Adaf’s fantasies where one looks for the buried heart.

Coming up: Shimon Adaf’s Tongue Untangled.

[1] Books by Adaf available in English translation include Sunburnt Faces (meta-fantasy, translated by Margalit Rodgers and Anthony Berris), Aviva-No (poetry, translated by Yael Segalovitz), and his “Lost Detective” trilogy (translated by Yardenne Greenspan).

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