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J A C K E T   #   E L E V E N   |    A P R I L   2 0 0 0  


Thomas Epstein - Translating the Divine

A review of John High's
The Desire Notebooks (New York, 1999)


ALTHOUGH the literary model of experience may no longer define cultural norms in America, 'serious fiction' continues to be written. For the most part, it falls into two broad categories or camps: the various forms of literary realism, and the various gambits of postmodernism.

The realist school - whether in or outside the academy  - includes the many varieties of ethnic and gender-based fiction as well as work that shows the psychological and minimalist tendencies that have flourished in the writing workshops. Postmodernism, with its more abstract and intellectualized forms of literary discourse, has made its living on a critique of the perceived logocentrism of all 'traditional' literature and thought. By deconstructing the unified self and exploding the boundaries of sign and signifier, postmodernism has sought to unmask the illusions underlying what many literary realists (and others) assumed to be 'reality.'

However, both 'schools' have utterly failed to register one of life's primordial and central experiences: the sheer mystery of presence, both unsayable and divine. One merit of the extraordinary book under review is that it meets this challenge head-on, thereby avoiding the reductionistic trap of the realists (who naively equate word with thing) and the postmodernist assumption that word and thing are linked only by conventional human agreement. The Desire Notebooks is instead a mystico-religious fiction that successfully navigates between the modern and archaic, between the chaos of linguistic nihilism and the symbolic order of the mythical.


The Desire Notebooks is a difficult work to summarize, for several reasons. As both hierarchical and 'metaphysical,' the world of The Desire Notebooks is defined by shifting levels of reality: individual characters and their worlds blend into each other and their angelic counterparts, ultimately becoming part of a larger Myth. As a theological work, it contrasts and ultimately conflates the temporal with the eternal: events - in effect the same originary event, the passage from time into eternity - take place in 988, 1917, 1933, and the 1990s, yet all at "the same time," while the same "person," in dreaming him or herself outside of the dream in which s/he is entwined, comes to realize the many souls - and the one Soul - that lurks within.

In this sense The Desire Notebooks is a classic archaic "journey" to the land of the dead. It is made up not so much of separable events or plot as the physio-spiritual travails of two souls - one male, one female - who seek a return to their point of origin. This process, however, is not linear, proceeding from "beginning" to "end," but a spasmodic attempt to enact the end of time in an eternal moment of simultaneity - a process that is masterfully embodied in the novel's three parts or novellas, which in fact form a unity as each echoes, comments upon, and deepens our understanding of the preceding.

This "archaic journey" is of course also a "real"  one,  across Russia's endlessly flat terrain (where the book's author lived during the early 1990s), by train and trains, through icy forests, past burning cities, amidst terrorist explosions, and in which love and death - but especially death - are everywhere present. It is a journey that ends for "them" - as it does for all of us - at a final "river," across which lies the "other side," where hill, sea, and story eternally merge in a mystical initiation.

Parallel to, and simultaneous with, the story of "he" and "she" (or "you," as she becomes in the course of "his" progress), is the story of five monks ("Mika, the blind. Virgil, the laughing monk. Ezekiel, the teller. Sisdel, the gnostic without hands. Peter, the apostle who falls from the sky to greet the millenium."), a winged boy-angel named Thomas, a crow named Tikhno, and Hezhen, the fishwoman, who is both witch and "mother of us all." These "monks overlooking the story," as the third part of The Desire Notebooks is entitled, are at once the souls of a group of victims of a Stalinist massacre of 1933; the continuators of a journey begun in the tenth century by one Ezekiel of Panopolis, who bequeathed a "book," the book of life and destiny, in which the lives of "he" and "she" (who later "realize' that they are Peter and Hezhen) are inscribed; and finally the companion souls and guardians of a shadowy present, the 1990s, which can be "recognized" in soldiers playing video games and in the contemporary photographs that fill the book.

In fact, though, the central question for both reader and character is not where we are in "historical time" - for the monks are in the first instance heralds of eternity -  but in our ability to recognize, through the many layers of dream in which we too are embedded, the eternal Soul in which each of our individual destinies is written. As one of the characters comments: "One day we'll see a large body of water called a sea in the pages." But what will we see?

Since what the left eye sees, the right eye is blind to. Yet this truth is ours. This freedom of God to wander in our soul with neither man's nor woman's definition. This truth of the body where they'll meet again in God's dream. The lovers unaware that they are even dreaming, just as we are sometimes unaware that it is only through  their dreaming that we continue.

In this network of dreams and incarnations ("But it was like this for each of us, even in the earlier lives. Before we forgot one another, she wrote on the back of his arm in black ink as the train pulled away."), life itself becomes an act of translation, a passionate interpretation of the divine language that we do not define but that defines us. Such a world, and its language, is necessarily allusive and poetic, in part incomprehensible, 'foolish' in Erasmus's sense: neither the novel's characters nor its readers are its masters, for it is a book "read" from within the heart of a bewildered body-soul whose ultimate unity lies in a beyond that can be lived but not cognized.

Nevertheless, this  struggle, this desire to unite language and being is a necessary and authentic one, its transcendent meaning hidden in plain sight in a book that is equally Christian Bible, Buddhist silence, and our own lives. We are part of a myth both made and in the making. What is truly miraculous about The Desire Notebooks is that, across its many risks, it manages to be both earnestly pious and artistically  rigorous, both spiritually 'naïve' (American) and infinitely complex (Russian). This book of world literature will certainly not arrest the decline of literary culture; but it does suggest a subject and a language that cannot be 'virtualized.' This is no mean feat.

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