A Heaven of Others – Joshua Cohen on ending up in the wrong place at the right time.

How did I get here, if I am still an I? If how and where is here? can still be asked and why?

He got here how he got here.  How anyone gets here. How and where it is not my domain, this answering of questions.  It is unbecoming.  Truly insulting.  Beneath me. Below. Rather it is I, who create these questions and endeavour to create them answerless.  Unanswerable to anyone save the asker to whom – and do not fall into the wrong pt if it is in me to ever creat one –  they are still unanswerable but who still must seek. To hide a find. To question my domain, my only power, rather the only power I allow myself in the how and in the here.

A Heaven of Others is Joshua Cohen’s second novel and fourth book of fiction. It is a tale of horror – not of horror per se, but of a very specific horror. The horror of dying Jewish and waking up in Muslim heaven. I must confess right away, that I am not nearly qualified to do justice to a proper review of this masterful novel.  I have very little Jewish theology and I have no classic German poetry. I have leaned heavily on Daniel Elkind and his brilliant review so that you, my treasured reader, do not have to suffer for my ignorance. 

This amazing novella is divided up into seven separate sections. The first is sectioned off by starting with Nelly Sach’s Glühende Rätsel: iii.  The second is titled ‘Shoes’, then ‘Nakedness’, ‘A Pilgrimage’, ‘Limitation’, ‘Maturing to Infinity’, ‘A Metaphor’. Each is a pathway, in a circular style, that lead to the ‘Maturing to Infinity’ of the soul welcomed into heaven.

However, heaven is a confusing , horrifying place. He is the wrong person in another’s shoes. Shoes that lead him to a river of honey that seems like a beautiful idea, till he wades and gets stuck. Abducted by Eagle and dumped at the honey river, he is counseled that he may meet with “the man named Mohommed”.  This is a hoped for meeting, as this mysterious man is the only one who can explain why he is there and help him leave immediately. The depictions of this heaven are theologically accurate, and therefore even to a ten year old Jonathan Schwarzstein (who may or may not still be that age in Muslim heaven) steeped in the deepest horror.

Jonathan arrived in this heaven after he was out shopping for a toy for his birthday:

A toy, I just wanted a toy, to break to get another toy. to break next year or upon the new year, which were never.

 and he and his parents stopped off at the shoe store to get his much loved father a pair of shoes. While standing in the street,  A young Muslim boy hugs him and he hugs back.  the boy, aged ten like Jonathan, is a suicide bomber and he takes Jonathan and his family and many of those around him to another world.

He hugged me I don’t know why I hug him back in return.

Us, we hug tightly. We fall on each other. We feel for one and for others we fall. We feel. And we hug.

Their eyes shut, they squeeze — just like lemons.

And then they explode.

Mind the seeds.

From this intense moment we are pulsed into a sort of anti-climax with glimpses of the Islam heaven we lay folk know about – nakedness, virgins, buffets. the language starts to change here. It is poetic – although the entire novella is almost a prose poem – but it moves into a relationship with pace. Cohen uses clever word plays and a circular swirling motion to draw us into Johnathan’s confusion. There is no linear thought process, narrative or substantive grasp. We are in the liquid swirl of this knowing and not knowing. Cohen uses the body of the text to close the gap between moment and interpretation. Metaphors and similes are indistinguishable from a coherent attempt to understand Jonathan’s experience.  Jonathan, who has survived so much already, comes to this heaven to endure, to remember, to doubt, and to gossip; to expound his opinions on prayer, beet salad, tourism, and personhood; and to tell us who he was while he lived: who we are or were. His father is a piano tuner, his mother the Queen. When faced with the naked virgins, he knows that he wants a Queen, and they offer themselves in a horrific moment of mother-love over kill (ovary kill) to be all mothers to this small boy who grows smaller and smaller the more he longs for his one true Queen.

This is not, however, another voyeuristic novel where heaven becomes this excuse for irony – the carnival of our minds. This is not simply a vehicle for something else. It is in heaven that Jonathan realises he wants to find his way back – it is a creepy horror to his Jewish eyes. If hell is other people, then heaven for he who does not believe in that particular heaven, is the hell from other people.

Part way through, Jonathan realism, exhausted that he isn’t getting out of heaven any time soon and at this point he gives up his commentary, choosing instead to explain and atone:

  I never entered into the Valley of Nails not even as unshod as I was, and because I never entered into the Valley of Nails between the Two Mountains that might have been clouds after all I never had my Salaam answered, neither did I then truly seek the man named Mohammed [. . .] When it came to the ultimate sacrifice, I demurred. When pain entered into the world, my dream exited, flying. When a single choice was offered me I chose another.

[. . .] I cleave to this identity for and only for the memory—mine—of my Aba and the Queen. For them how I loved them. And for the expectations they once had for my own memory. Expectations becoming love in their ripening. A memory to be had by others. Becoming. Others I never made in an image I felt becoming the world.

The book is laced with jewish metaphor and word play that I can read and appreciate the smattering edges of, but for a good source commentary, I will rely here on  DANIEL ELKIND‘s excellent review in A new Haven Revew:

Like the doomed atmosphere of Prague’s old Jewish Quarter in Paul Leppin’s short story collection Others’ Paradise, the very boundaries of existence at any stage are the subject of myth, and existential ambivalence a form of theology; life is a kind of prayer; and the Jew is a feverish metaphor that bears the brunt of evolution. Now that Leppin’s seedy and labyrinthine world is gone along with Leppin’s own peculiar syphilitic paranoia and the comfort of personal enemies, we are left—Cohen seems to imply—with a stranger and more relative doubt almost as sure as certainty, much as Jonathan is lost and knows he is lost in a heaven he can only intuit. In this utter awareness Cohen offers us perhaps a pure, holy regret for what seems lost forever, but lost only to us, he reminds—the survivors: as the heart of his book is an idea-as-doctrine he calls Maturing to Infinity, or growing ever and ever, a metamorphosis abandoned by theology and teleology both. (Though as Cohen, a writer so aware of etymology would appreciate, Jonathan’s lack of a telos, or end, simultaneously makes him teleos, or perfect—as horrifying as that perfection might be.) The victim is a sacrifice at once trapped and free in his eternal victimhood, forced to change unrecognized, uncounted, and unaccounted for, while at the same time mourned on earth, consecrated as a martyr, and remembered forever as the 10-year-old boy he no longer resembles or knows.

We know that Joshua Cohen is an outsider both in Israel and in his native America.  A Heaven of others is not an opportunity to score political or theological points, nor is it completely cut off from those distanced from their own theological origins. This is a fevered cry of individual doubt, agnosticism.  Again I’ll lean on Daniel Elkind’s review to carry this idea further:

…or Agnon’s—gnosticism, as S.Y. Agnon, too, wrote of tradition amidst modernity and was influenced by German literature and reflected his heart’s philosophy in a necessarily new language; though in the untranslated epigram, Cohen chooses the Hebrew-language poet Saul Tchernichovsky as his shadow Virgil, and the poem “Levivot,” or “Pancakes,” which tells the story of a boy’s trajectory from unquestioning obedience and acceptance—the untranslatable egel melumad, literally “a learned calf” and also the taunt for a yeshiva student—to freedom and, consequently, sacrilege: “having no weapon in its hands/It will cleave to all its persecutors forbid.” Notice the double meaning of this English translation: cleave in the sense of to split and to separate, as well as to join together—“Cleave, which in American means both To rend and To adhere,” as Cohen does, in his faith and faithlessness, holiness and profanity. “In this heaven as in any heaven I am no longer a Jew. In this heaven as in any heaven I am no more a Jew than I’m not [. . .] To be forever estranged, even amid your own congregation, and to be forever wandering, even within your own encampment, and only because they make me a stranger, and only because they make me a wanderer, they who would be I only if, I who would be they only why [. . .]”

Finally, the last section, or chapter, is a tour de force single sentence of a breathless virtuoso. One of the many pleasures of this book is the transparency of its influences, even if I am on the outside of so many of them, and the legibility of its inspiration. Ultimately this is cry from the belly to choose the face by which we are known.  In this world, our names, our faces can make targets of us (let me tell you about being called a ‘Thatcher’ some time) on behalf of freedom of speech. In a world that is in continuous ruin, memory is the property of one who remembers. Everything else is lost to Television.

I’ll end with the closing remarks of Elkind’s review and after that another quote from this amazing book:

Perhaps nothing written since Kafka quite conveys the arbitrary cruelty and absurdity of a world such as this in the most proximate human terms, and the inner sense, or intuition, of a soul that mediates between. In fact, now that so much Jewish literature has been written and rewritten again in English, now that we have so many authors and classics, it is all the more rare and inspiring that Cohen, scandalously overlooked in America, especially by the Jewish literary community—the novel is timestamped almost four years ago, in 2004—continues to delve deeper and further with each book into an inherited terrain while making of that holy ground these beautifully uncharted territories with their own maps and legends. (It did not come as a surprise that, according to his website, Cohen has just finished an 800-page novel about the last Jew on earth, called, blasphemously: Graven Imaginings.) “How did I get here, if I am still an I” Jonathan asks in the opening sentence, and is mocked in a kind of Yiddish by the narrator, who is himself: “He got here how he got here.” At once terrifying and singular and singularly important, A Heaven of Others repeats and channels the echo of that initial question, forcing us to see ourselves between destinies, between politics and political persuasions, and between answers themselves, to ask in fact who and what we really are: how did we get here, that is, if we are to remain an I?

From A Heaven of Others:

… there was no revelation, there was none at all to be had and instead though it’s a poor bargain if you’d ask me now if only you could if only I could answer in return the assurance of existence  that’s it times tenfold that’s all that I am shining I’m just shining through the horror just through the raw yolk of existence cracking a shine through its knobless handleless shell it was horror yes because it was horror or rather more accurately more faithfully it was terror yes more like terror that was it was terror was abject terror abject total terror yes terror that’s what heaven is like that absolute truly terrible dreaming of dreaming of mine.