The Messiah of Stockholm

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Novel by Cynthia Ozick, 1987

Cynthia Ozick's The Messiah of Stockholm (1987) is a compact and highly provocative narrative that may be read as a parable about Holocaust memory and postwar Jewish identity. Its playful, quasi-fantastical mode recalls the postmodernist techniques of Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino . In both its style and content, the novel also presents an homage to the Polish Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, who was killed by the Nazis in 1942. The narrative centers on a few days in the life of Lars Andemening, an eccentric and reclusive book reviewer for a newspaper in Stockholm. His name, Swedish for "spirit" or "inward sense," points to his fantasy that he has been singled out for an elevated spiritual mission. As for his actual life, he sleeps during the day, rarely communicates with anybody, and spends his nights writing cryptic reviews of highbrow central European writers. His obsession is literature, which he imbues with the sanctity of a religion: "He had long ago thrown himself on the altar of literature." Alongside this quasi-religious devotion is Lars's deep-seated conviction that he is the son of Bruno Schulz, who was shot by the Nazis on the streets of Drogobych during the early stages of the Holocaust. Lars focuses all of his energies on this lost "father," studying Polish and devoting himself to learning as much about Schulz as possible.

Lars has one confidante, the bookseller Mrs. Elkund, who reluctantly assists him in tracking down Schulziana. She herself hardly believes Lars's story about himself and has little interest in examining personal histories: "You're a Swede like any Swede," she says. "Why be a fool and dredge all that up—nobody cares, old Nazi stories …" But Lars insists on tracking down any remains of Schulz's work, particularly the lost manuscript of his last work, entitled The Messiah.

Playing on this title, Ozick invites the reader to examine the relationship between a textual and a real messiah. Lars has kept alive a faith in Schulz's textual Messiah, but what about the divine Messiah? Does his investment in the one preclude a genuine faith in the other? This question comes to the fore in the second half of Ozick's text, which gradually shifts register from narrative to parable. Lars learns that a woman calling herself Schulz's daughter has arrived in Stockholm in possession of Schulz's original manuscript. Fearing that he is being fooled, Lars is nonetheless drawn to the manuscript as if to his salvation. When he gets the opportunity to inspect the manuscript for himself, Ozick describes his process of reading with metaphors of consumption, suggesting an idolatrous relation to the text: "The terrible speed of his hunger, chewing through hook and blade, tongue and voice, of the true Messiah ! Rapacity, gluttony!"

The text that Lars reads contains an implicit message to him to abandon his obsession with the manuscript. It describes a sort of postapocalyptic future, when "no human beings remained in Drohobycz; only hundreds and hundreds of idols." The idols begin to worship each other, and all over town there are sacrificial bonfires, the stronger idols seizing and burning the weaker ones. Into this scene of destruction the Messiah emerges from the cellar of the Drohobycz synagogue where an old man named Moses the Righteous One used to sleep on a huge bundle of hay. Lars seems to be on the verge of receiving from this text a warning against his own idolatrous reading practices. The Messiah in the text embodies the message to stop hungering after, and seeking to devour, substitute messiahs. Yet Lars cannot register such a message and determines instead that the manuscript must be a fake. He retreats in despair to the conclusion that the real Messiah "went into the camps with its keeper … The Messiah was burned up." Where he had previously insisted upon "dredging up" the past, now he accepts the view that the past is irretrievable. As if retroactively to impose on the manuscript in his hands the same fate, Lars sets fire to it.

In the novel's postscript to this apocalyptic ending, Lars returns to his ordinary life. Having abandoned his fantasy of being Schulz's son, he resigns himself to the life of a "normal" reviewer of mediocre books. But the questions raised by the novel remain unanswered: How can we honor the dead without using them for our own purposes? How can we use literature as a genuine form of commemoration? How can we remember the past if our memories are driven by our fantasies and personal needs? The novel suggests that where Lars ultimately fails, others may succeed in responsibly bearing witness to the memory of the Holocaust.

—Julian Levinson

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The Messiah of Stockholm

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