The Second Scroll
THE SECOND SCROLL
Novel by A.M. Klein, 1951
The last publication of Montreal poet A.M. Klein, before his disabling illness struck, was an audaciously conceived book entitled The Second Scroll (1951). Klein himself identi-fied the book as a novel, but it was so unlike any other novel that it still defies easy classification as a literary kind. Most critics have settled on the phrase "poetic novel," but to understand fully what a daring departure this work really is, one must first understand its title.
The inspiration for the book was Klein's idea that the twentieth-century history of the Jews had been strikingly parallel to the historical and religious beginnings of the Jewish people as recorded in the first five books of the Old Testament. According to Jewish tradition the Pentateuch was given to Moses by God and is therefore sacred. Its Hebrew name, Torah, identifies the five books as the embodiment of the laws of Judaism, and for that reason a copy of the Torah, in its original form as a handwritten parchment scroll, is to be found in every Jewish house of worship. Klein's book is thus intended to be a modern Torah, a second scroll, telling the most recent story of Jewish persecutions, slaughters, and banishments into exile and the diaspora. The defining event, of near total destruction of the Jews, would of course be the Holocaust, and the ending, its Deuteronomy, would record the saving of the remnant by their return to the homeland under the banner of Zionism.
Klein's story is told in five chapters bearing the English names of the canonical five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In accordance with Jewish tradition, the five chapters are followed by five commentaries, called Glosses, numbered in Hebrew: Aleph, Beth, Gimel, Dalid, Hai. The chapters named in English, and the commentaries numbered in Hebrew, clearly signal Klein's intention to make his novel a hybrid. That intention follows logically from his basic concept of creating an authentic modern Torah and, at the same time, a story of interest to Jews and non-Jews alike. For that reason The Second Scroll duplicates, in its structure, a universally familiar biblical narrative but employs a language that deliberately mingles poetic English and hybrid elements derived from Yiddish, Hebrew, Latin, French, or Italian. An example of this occurs in the book's opening sentence: "For many years my father—may he dwell in a bright Eden!—refused to permit in his presence even the mention of that person's name." The phrase "may he dwell in a bright Eden!" is a literal translation of a common Yiddish expression. The effect of the literalness is to impress on readers who know no Yiddish that the expression is not standard English and belongs to a different culture. The device, in many variations, is used repeatedly throughout the narrative to underline the hybrid nature of the whole.
The Second Scroll is a first-person narrative, strongly focused on just two characters: the narrator, a member of an orthodox Jewish family in Montreal, and the narrator's uncle, Melech Davidson, who is the brother of the narrator's mother and still lives in the Ukrainian village of Ratno, where the narrator's mother was born. The narrator has never met his uncle but knows his reputation as "a prodigy of learning and a scholar in Israel" and hopes to follow in his footsteps. The novel's central figure is the uncle, whose odyssey and quest for a righteous life provide the narrative thread. The uncle's celebrated piety is shattered when he witnesses a pogrom in Ratno. He abandons his faith and embraces Marxism, hoping to find justice. Years later, having rejected Marxism, he is deeply shocked, during the war, when he comes upon firsthand evidence of the Holocaust in Kamenets, Poland. Horrified, he flees to Italy, where he helps Jews in a displaced-persons camp and, still searching, has a brief flirtation with Catholicism. He finally finds a comforting peace in Israel, where he dies. The matured narrator then undertakes his own quest, traveling to Europe to find his uncle, first in Italy, then, following his trail, in Israel. He arrives too late to attend his funeral but is comforted to witness the establishment of the new state and the miracle, as he calls it, of the survival of the Jewish people after near extinction.
The novel includes unsparingly vivid descriptions of the massacre of Jews in Kamenets and earnestly addresses the major issues of the time, namely the nature of evil and the problem of faith in an all-powerful deity who can countenance the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust. To that extent The Second Scroll is a powerfully moving history of our times and deserves its reputation as Klein's finest work and as one of the most original works of fiction in Canadian literature of the twentieth century.