What's in a Name (BOOK REVIEW)
The Name. Michal Govrin, translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav. Riverhead Books, 1999.
What does it mean to repent? According to R. Joseph Soloveitchik's Halachic Man, repentance is "the severing of one's psychic identity with one's previous 'I,' and the creation of a new 'I,' possessor of a new consciousness, a new heart and spirit, different desires, longings, goals.… The desire to be another person, to be different than I am now, is the central motif of repentance." But does repentance abet healing, either of a self or a society?
A woman's passionate attempt to become a new person is a central motif in Michal Govrin's disturbing novel, The Name, recently translated from the Hebrew in which it won Israel's coveted Prime Minister's Prize for Writers in 1998. The novel's Hebrew title, HaShem, highlights the author's daring, for the title is simultaneously the name of a God who must not be named, and points to the multiple self-naming of its protagonist. Govrin, a poet and experimental theater director as well as novelist, is unique as a writer who fuses profane and religious sensibilities in her work. As a secular writer she is post-Freudian, post-Derridean, yet she grapples with wrenching questions of faith. Steeped in the dizzying discourses of Talmud and Kabbalah, she both reveres and challenges these traditions. The problem in her novel is that Amalia, her heroine, is trying to repent of something she is not guilty of—the Holocaust. And the impossibility of the task may lead her to suicide.
Daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Amalia is named after her father's first wife, a gifted pianist who killed herself in Auschwitz as she was about to be executed, and is hence a heroine to a whole community. As a small child growing up in America, Amalia is screamed at by her father when she tries to play a xylophone—"Ugly!" he calls her sounds. Inheriting his woundedness and obsession, haunted by the first Amalia, guilt-ridden over her wish to escape into the bohemian life of an avant-garde photographer, she breaks into multiple personalities, multiple names: Mala, Emily, Amy, Malinka. In the diary that is the text of the novel, she calls herself I, you, or she depending on the degree of her self-alienation.
When we first meet her, Amalia is a "penitent," weaving a Torah curtain in a small apartment in the Arab section of Jerusalem. It is the time of the counting of the Omer, the fifty days between Passover and Shavuot when, through a regime of purifying prayer, Orthodox Jews hope to help bring about tikkun olam, the repair of the world. Amalia is praying intensely, chanting prayers ordinarily said by men, and we soon realize that she expects to offer herself as a sacrifice, a scapegoat, a bride of God, wrapped in the finished Torah scroll, at the close of the Omer.
I am a different person and not the same one who sinned and I change my name. These words of Maimonides become a refrain in the novel, where Amalia's anguished efforts to repudiate her secular life under the auspices of a series of rabbi-mentors continually fail. Neither can she repudiate her doubt of God's justice. None of the simple pieties of those who surround her are effective in healing her soul. Her attempt to exorcise the original Amalia by photographing the places she lived and performed is a disaster. Her planned marriage with Isaiah—a sensitive young violinist who has come to believe that playing for the sake of playing, beauty for the sake of beauty, are truly idolatry—is inevitably shattered. In an epiphany of what may be blasphemy or may be true holiness, near the novel's close, Amalia experiences a vision of a God who torments His lovers, whose jealousy is catastrophic, whose love is a bedchamber of tears.
Can anyone succeed in becoming a new person? How are the ripples of trauma after the Holocaust to be healed? Does memorializing the dead enable the living to choose life, or does it entrap them? Does saturation in an ultra-Orthodox and mystical world save or warp the soul of the penitent? Is the giving of the self to God a fulfillment or an annihilation? What of the role of women within the many worlds of Jewishness in America and Israel? Can carnal and sacred love ever be one? These are among the questions which The Name raises and leaves unanswered.
A coldly secular eye might say that Govrin's protagonist has fallen victim to a cult. Yet the sheer verbal beauty of Jewish liturgy, prophecy, and philosophy, the richness of symbolism in Amalia's weaving—interlaced with the motif of writing—and the depth of custom and legend shaping her life and this story, are irresistibly awesome. So is the aura of the city of Jerusalem, which becomes almost a living character in Govrin's tale. A host of minor characters running through the novel vividly recreates two simultaneous and nonoverlapping worlds—the one that remembers history and forgets God, and the one that clings to God and cannot confront the tragedy of history.
Govrin has been compared, as a novelist of the Holocaust, with David Grossman. Like Grossman, she evokes a society ripe with obsession and forgetting. Like other Israeli writers of fiction such as Savyon Liebrecht, she deplores the way the dominant culture of Israel glosses over the pain of many of its citizens. But for the ecstatic music and mystery of her writing, her wrestling with memory that invokes centuries past, her ability to evoke hope and despair in a single breath, and above all the spirituality of her vision, I would set Govrin alongside Toni Morrison. As Morrison's most famous novel closes with the single word "Beloved," so Govrin's The Name closes with the single word "Sabbath." Is this Sabbath one of destruction or of healing? We do not know, although we have seen Amalia struggle toward acceptance of a flawed self, a flawed world, and a flawed Creator. Govrin implies that acknowledgment of painful realities past and present, rather than the attempt to suppress pain by repentance, is what may heal both an individual self and a society. Like Morrison's Beloved, this is a revolutionary novel that will haunt the reader.