Shimon Adaf’s Postmodern Fantasy, pt. 2

Once upon a time—in 2006 to be exact—the Israeli writer Shimon Adaf published a children’s fantasy titled Ha-lev ha-kavur (The Buried Heart). The book tells the story of two tweens, the boy Emir Mor-Tal and the girl Talia Pinto, who live in the sleepy development town of Mavo Yam in southern Israel. Emir’s terribly ordinary life (apart from some curious incidents that occurred when he was a baby) is interrupted when he turns eleven and experiences a day of supernatural events, a day that takes place outside of time—as he realizes when he wakes up the next day and no time has passed.

With this commences a series of strange adventures in which Emir learns that he is the Ta’ar ha-or—the Light Blade—destined to fight against the all-powerful dark lord Amraphel. Emir is assisted—rescued, in fact—by his pal Talia, who has magical potential of her own and a much keener intellect than Emir when it comes to deciphering the situations they find themselves in. The novel’s backstory consists of Adaf’s rewriting of the biblical narrative of Amraphel and the patriarch Abraham in Genesis 14 as a war of wizardry, and the book is marked throughout by the author’s obsession with the nature of language. But these aspects are mostly dressing on a fairly conventional plot. By the end of the novel Emir and Talia defeat Amraphel and save the world. The end.

Except that it wasn’t the end.

Adaf’s most recent novel, Ha-lashon noshlah (Tongue Untangled), published in 2021, is written for adults, not younger readers. Yet like The Buried Heart it is set in the fictional town of Mavo Yam, also centers on a boy named Emir, and also features Adaf’s villain Amraphel.

This time, though, Emir does not have the last name Mor-Tal. His last name is Halivah and, unlike Emir Mor-Tal, Emir Halivah is being raised by a single mother. Talia Pinto, we learn in the middle part of the novel, is not Emir’s chum from The Buried Heart, but a different character: a former child actress who starred years ago in a television show that was scripted by her mother and based on the fever dreams Talia had as a girl. Emir Halivah and his best friend Charlie watch old clips of the show on YouTube, which fascinates them almost as much as the Twilight Zone episodes they have on an old DVD collection.

Emir Halivah does befriend a girl his own age, named Lucinda, and who is similar to the Talia of The Buried Heart in that she is far more determined and intellectually acute than the cloddish boys around her, and has some magic of her own. Lucinda possesses an amulet bequeathed to her by her dead mother and that she calls Ha-lashon noshlah, a palindromic phrase in Hebrew that Adaf translates on the book’s copywright page as Tongue Untangled. This charm, the Tongue Untangled, makes strange things happen, and becomes a decisive part of the book though its true nature and history are only revealed toward the end.

The Twilight Zone episode “Little Girl Lost” is about a girl who disappears into another dimension, a relevant topic for the characters in Adaf’s novel.

So one begins Tongue Untangled with a sense of not-quite déjà vu. The book contains familiar elements from The Buried Heart, but the characters don’t match up with those in the earlier novel even when they bear the same names and live in the same town. The question of how the two books relate to each other intensifies when Lucinda’s brother Yossi comes across a fantasy novel titled The Buried Heart by Shimon Adaf.

The sense of uncertain connection further deepens as Emir, Charlie, Lucinda, and Yossi explore the gardens around an abandoned mental health facility in Mavo Yam. This facility was built to treat the residents of the town for trauma from the years of Palestinian missile attacks on the towns of southern Israel such as Adaf’s own Sderot. Except that the Mavo Yam of Tongue Untangled, just as the town of the same name in The Buried Heart, is strangely untouched by the years-long rocket barrage. The trauma center is even shuttered for lack of patients.

When the four kids trespass on the grounds around the abandoned health center they discover curious things, including a gate set with reliefs of monsters from The Buried Heart. And beyond the gate is a defunct mail box that acts as a magic portal from the world of fiction. Yossi, bullied by some neighborhood kids, summons a figure from his recent reading who he thinks will deliver appropriate punshiment to his tormentors.

Be careful what you wish for.

Thus Amraphel from The Buried Heart shows up in Mavo Yam—this Mavo Yam, which somehow seems to be different from the Mavo Yam of The Buried Heart. Amraphel at least realizes that he is in a different universe with an as yet undetermined connection to the reality of The Buried Heart. He furthermore recognizes in Emir Halivah a version of Emir Mor-Tal, but, says the dark lord, with some aspects missing.

Amraphel, while not as powerful here as he was in the world of The Buried Heart, nevertheless begins wreaking havoc on Mavo Yam, causing fatal accidents and illness. For the first time, the Hamas missile attacks strike Mavo Yam. The four children, desperate to figure out how to return Amraphel to the world of fiction, read The Buried Heart—or at least rely on a summary created in Google docs by Lucinda. They even email the author, explaining that they live in the town of Mavo Yam that he wrote about in The Buried Heart, and asking “hypothetically” how one would defeat his character Amraphel if Amraphel were real.

They receive a response from this “Shimon Adaf,” who is not very helpful on the Amraphel front, but is tickled by this strange bit of fan mail, sent by children who claim to live in “Mavo Yam,” which from his persepctive does not exist except as a fictionalized version of his real home town of Sderot in southern Israel. He assumes that the children must live in Sderot or one of the southern towns currently under missile attack, and wishes for their safety, observing: “I have asked myself why I spared [Mavo Yam] the Qassam rocket bombardments (which had already become routine when I was writing [The Buried Heart]), but I inflicted other fears and nightmares on it.” For their part the children are confused as to why Adaf refers to their town as a fictionalization, and begin to suspect that their town may not be real, even as they try to contend with threats from a fantasy novel.

All of this concerns the relationship between fantasy and reality, which shifts precipitously and unnervingly in Tongue Untangled as the novel’s characters try to apprehend their relationship with The Buried Heart. In the case of Mavo Yam’s heretofore miraculous luck regarding missile attacks, Adaf has retroactively literalized his decision to leave such attacks out of the earlier novel. In Tongue Untangled the implication is that Mavo Yam has been protected from Hamas rockets because the town isn’t real. If C. S. Lewis’s Pevensie children escape the Nazi blitz during World War Two by heading out to Professor Kirk’s house and its portal to Narnia, Adaf’s Mavo Yam is protected from the Hamas blitz by being itself an imaginary place.

But the status quo of imagination and reality, in which The Buried Heart is a work of fantasy and Tongue Untangled corresponds to “our world” of reality, is coming unraveled. We learn that this is not because of Amraphel’s entry into the world of Tongue Untangled. Instead, Adaf offers an even more elaborate backstory that he does not fully present until around 500 pages into the book, and which I will sketch as follows.

As in The Buried Heart, we learn that the original language was the “language of creation [bri’ah],” the perfect language of the angels in which each word corresponds to a particular thing and brings that thing into existence. It is the ideal of language, in which there is no gap or shortcoming between the word and the thing, only fullness and perfect creation.

Diagram of kabbalistic realms of existence, including that of “Bri’ah”

Long ago, mighty human wizards such as the biblical Abraham developed a secondary language since they were denied the primary language of the angels. This secondary language allowed human beings to create new realities, physical and mental, yet lacked the perfection and ontological realization of the unfallen language of the angels.

Tongue Untangled reveals that another group of wizards figured out how to use the secondary language to achieve the results of the primary language, allowing human beings to use words to create realities just like the angels. This magico-linguistic innovation was given the physical form of the Tongue Untangled, the amulet that would eventually come into Lucinda’s possession. But when it was first created, before it could be fully activated, the jealous angels attacked, destroying the wizards and their entire city. Human beings would not be allowed to compete with the angels, and humans would thereafter have to be content with their derivative languages and secondary realities, whether magical spells—or fantasy novels.

Because of the events in The Buried Heart, however, a new reality has been created in which the power of the Tongue Untangled might be again realized. This new reality is “our world,” or, rather, the world of the novel Tongue Untangled. In order to exist, this new world draws on the ontological energy of the world of The Buried Heart, which seeps into the world through holes torn in the fabric of time and reality, holes through which characters from The Buried Heart have come to take on partial existence in our world.

The angels are not happy with this turn of events. They call our reality “the superfluous world” and are bent on destroying it. Four angels in particular, who bear the forms of the four creatures (lion, ox, eagle, man) in Ezekiel’s chariot vision, are determined to end the existence of our world and prevent the Light Blade from saving it. They capture and horribly torture Emir Halivah, who is a partial avatar of the Light Blade. He is rescued by the Talia Pinto of The Buried Heart, who is now fifteen years old and in love with Emir Mor-Tal from her own timeline. The angels must be defeated, the universes separated, the holes between them repaired, and the various avatars of the characters either combined into one, or allowed to live their separate realities without contact across the wormholes.

Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot.

So, Adaf has written an elaborate fantasy about fantasy, and not his first. His novel Sunburnt Faces is also a fantasy novel that meditates on fantasy, though Tongue Untangled is twice as long and involves a far more elaborate system of interlocking mythic backstories about language and magic and the nature of the imagination.

This latest novel is also very much of a piece with our multiverse culture, the corporate engines churning out new superhero movies and television series with plots about fractured timelines and alternate versions of characters. The book is reminiscent of other works of literary fantasy, too, particularly Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which features similarly poignant farewells between teenagers who must return to their separate dimensions, and a similarly peevish attitude toward Judeo-Christian religion and its angels.

Is Tongue Untangled a good book? I don’t think so. Not the least of its problems is its bloat—600 pages in Hebrew, which (as Hebrew is a condensed language in contrast to English) would put it at close to 800 pages in English. The problem is not its length but that a good deal of the page count is generated by Adaf’s attempt to ground his fantasy story in a novelistically and sociologically realized, Israeli world but most often does so with an inordinate amount of detail about chewing food and sipping drinks.

Similarly, there are ramifying but unrewarding plot extensions, and minute descriptions of magical effects that amount to lights and shimmers and do not add to the mystery or verisimilitude of the supernatural elements. He piles up superfluous details that do not add to the physical, descriptive reality or disguise the occasional cliché. “He smacked the table. The dishes rattled,” writes Adaf, adding: “bright crackle of tableware, crunching rustle of the salt shaker, clatter of the crockery.” “The dishes rattled” was enough.

Part of the blame here must attach to Adaf’s editor Yigal Schwartz, a literary scholar, editor, and professor at Ben-Gurion University. In Israeli publishing there is a very close relationship between writers and editors: the name of the editor is often featured on the book’s title page. Here the relationship may be too close. Schwartz is a huge fan of Adaf’s work, but I think he would have done Adaf a greater service by insisting the novel be cut by half.

As I have said elsewhere, Adaf is a gifted lyric poet, and is capable of beautifully atmospheric passages of prose, some of which are to be found in Tongue Untangled. Yet despite its hundreds of pages, one does not come away from the novel with much of a sense of what a southern Israeli development town, or any other part of Israel, is actually like. There is a snow-like blankness in the proliferation of kitchen details, and this blankness extends to a cast of characters who are for the most part stock types defined by political and identity categories: the Smart Girl, the Neighborhood Bully, the Good Arab, the Racist Right-Wingers, the Intrepid Leftwing Journalist, the Compassionate Interracial Couple, etc. Although this novel is supposed to be the adult meta-commentary on the earlier children’s book, the characterization here is often less subtle than many a children’s fantasy.

Take Mahmoud Khalidi, the kindly kiosk owner in Mavo Yam. He dispenses fantasy novels to the children: LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, Lofting’s Doctor Doolittle, the Arabian Nights, and Adaf’s own The Buried Heart. Presenting Yossi with the Arabian Nights he delivers one of Adaf’s political lectures: “It also includes stories of Jews, not the Jews of Israel, but the Jews who lived without a country like us Palestinians, like your grandparents who lived alongside Arabs and Muslims.” Mahmoud understands and helps the children as none of the adults will and, as he is an Arab, he is nearly lynched by racist residents of Mavo Yam.

Evidently the sort of thing you see at a kiosk in Israel.

What Mahmoud is not is a three-dimensional character. He is a “Magical Arab,” the Israeli equivalent of what in the United States has been criticized as the “Magical Negro” trope. Mahmoud’s function is to be kind to the children, teach them magical folklore, and show everyone that racism is bad.

The narrative flaws seen in The Buried Heart are also here: belated expositions and backstory infodumps in place of narrative suspense and resolution, sudden and arbitrary realizations on the part of the characters, narrative logic filled in with talkiness rather than action. Adaf’s career-long obsession with the nature of language ironically fails to appreciate the literary effectiveness of silence.

Yet Tongue Untangled shows the extent to which Adaf’s obsession with language may be an attempt to contrive a placeholder for a banished metaphysics, for a religious tradition that Adaf treats antagonistically. In one of the key backstories of the novel, Adaf creates a new biblical story, as he did in the earlier book with his rewriting of Amraphel and Abraham in Genesis 14. Here, Adaf offers a kind of Gnostic midrash about Moses, the prophet Micah, and the Golden Calf.

The main kind of magic available to human beings in the world of Tongue Untangled is called shifting (hazazah) and the first shifter was the biblical prophet Micah. Drawing on a number of biblical and midrashic sources, Adaf tells how Micah and Moses were comrades until, after the exodus from Egypt, the two men quarelled over Micah’s desire to teach human beings magic:

Moses claimed that such training would not allow the Israelites ever to become free of Egyptian slavery, that such craft, alien to the Hebrew spirit, should be eradicated. Micah accused him of being afraid to lose his power and his leadership, as the craft of shifting signified freedom of thought, to criticize, investigate, and shape social reality, adapting to circumstances. Moses said that Micah didn’t understand the point, that he was violating the laws and statutes. “Before the Israelites can throw off their chains they require new chains, cleaner and purer. Have you never wondered why they mumble to themselves that catchphrase, ‘naaseh ve-nishma’ [we will do as you tell us] morning, noon, and night? They aren’t ready to think for themselves.”
            Moses went up to the mount to forge these chains for them in the form of the tablets of the law and the commandments, and ordered Micah to stay in his tent during his absence. But Micah didn’t care. He exhorted the Israelites to gather their golden jewelry, the loot and plunder they took with them from the treasuries of Egypt, and cast them into a giant furnace, and from the gold they gave he raised up the calf with his craft.

In Adaf’s telling, the Golden Calf offers information and guidance for the Israelites, a kind of internet in statue form. It is a form of magic that allows the Israelites to obtain the knowledge they want and thus live independently of Moses and his religious law. Micah is a Prometheus figure, who only wants to help humanity free itself of the celestial powers, of the heavy chains of the Mosaic law. Enraged, Moses banishes Micah, who must pass on his magical teachings secretly, on the margins of Jewish society ever after.

Poussin’s “Adoration of the Golden Calf”

This typology of normative religious tradition as oppressive and narrow-minded, while outsiders are benevolent and independent-minded runs through the book. Rabbis and orthodox Jews in Adaf’s fiction often tend to be racists and bigots. The main agent of the sadistic angels in the book is an underground organization of fanatical monotheists—Jewish, Christian, and Muslim—who want to uproot all idolatry from the world. The organization is run by a far-right Israeli Jew. It takes a certain ideological perspective to make an Israeli organization that unites Muslims, Christians, and Jews the bad guys. Yet, as Lucinda tells one rabbi, idolatry is not bad. It is a form of magic that can be used for good purposes.

By “idolatry,” Lucinda seems to mean individual autonomy, certainly in the modern, liberal sense, and perhaps too in the romantic or Promethean sense of the exaltation of the self and its creative forces as against social traditions and cultural norms. Even the patriarchs and heroes of Jewish tradition—at least before Moses comes along with his law—are presented by Adaf as mighty wizards who draw their power from intuition and instinct. Long before Micah’s esoteric tradition, we are told,

there were miracles and magic, some more powerful than anything Micah could create. The sorcerers of Egypt were definitely above him in their ability, and also the leaders of Israel, Abraham, who was probably the greatest sorcerer in human history, something that even the author of The Buried Heart with all his unsupported inventions understood, and Jacob who fashioned ladders from which the worthy climbed down transformed, bearing mighty visions, and Hushim ben Dan whose cry shook the foundations of the world, and King David whose songs shifted souls and whose sword Peerless that he took from Goliath the Philistine was kept in Nob the city of priests and enabled him to come and go among people without hindrance. And of course Our Teacher Moses, second only to Abraham. But their miracles and wonders were the expression of pure ability, unrestrained, untrained. It relied on feeling, a hidden sense, not on organized knowledge.

The reconstruction of biblical patriarchs and heroes as wizards puts me in mind of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories,” in which he takes pains to distinguish the quality of what he calls “enchantment”—a quality that at least gestures toward a moral dimension—from what he calls “magic,” which is a merely manipulative craft, and often employed to control others. Adaf is a writer of the latter more than the former.

Indeed, Adaf is less interested here in moral qualities than in aesthetic ones. In the description above of the “leaders of Israel” as sorcerers we can also recognize the romantic conception of the great poets, those who had access to a kind of supernal originality, unlike the poor writer today who must proceed by formula, working off the traces of the magic that once was. Tongue Untangled imagines the possibility of an unfallen language that would let the latter-day poet achieve the mighty works of the angels and the prophets.

When Adaf does turn to moral questions it is inevitably in the mode of the contemporary Israeli left, its political resentments, identity politics, and familiar roster of good guys and bad guys. This may please Israeli readers who share Adaf’s politics, but is a disappointing payoff for such a hefty novel. Yet this is all that remains when we follow Adaf’s characters’s roundabout quests to the end.

It seems telling that, at a few points along the way, a character runs across a strange book in Amraphel’s library. It is a handwritten fantasy novel illustrated with tableaux of little girls who all have penises, and who undergo a series of repetitive adventures, transformations, captures, and rescues. One recognizes the demented epic vision In the Realms of the Unreal by outsider artist and janitor Henry Darger, a work never published in Darger’s lonely lifetime yet that has, since its discovery, fascinated a number of writers in addition to Adaf. What is it doing here? Is it a commentary on the power of imagination, or on its failure? On the isolation of the artist, or the possibility of his rescue from oblivion?

From Henry Darger’s fantasy

It is hard to say, and does not really add anything to the novel. Just as, in the final pages, Adaf imports the protagonist of his own “Lost Detective” trilogy, who also seems to have read Adaf’s other books, and confesses his own desire, unacted on, to write a sequel to The Buried Heart. This, too, adds little to the novel except to confirm the self-referentiality of Tongue Untangled, which is, finally, a novel about the writing of Tongue Untangled.

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