September 2008

Sarah Burke

features

Identity Crisis: Tamar Yellinís Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes

Tamar Yellin’s novel, The Genizah at the House of Sepher, was a book about a book -- specifically a book about a lost book that is found again among piles of a family’s documents in an old Jerusalem house. The chaos and soul-searching that result from the book’s discovery raise questions about memory, family and faith. Yellin’s new collection of short stories, Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes, is about lost people living among us, and once again Yellin examines the place of an individual in the world. Certain images recur from Genizah: a solitary woman who lives in a room at the top of a tall house, an old man who carries a small radio with him from room to room so that he never misses any news. Books recur as powerful objects as well: one story examines an antiquarian book-dealer and his relationship with the narrator’s father, who can never find the perfect book that will end his feverish collecting (“it was never The Book, the final book of books, the mythical grail of books he was pursuing”). In another story, the narrator throws dozens of copies of a book into the sea, knowing that a completed book is never as good as the possibility of a book.

The narrator has no name and no gender. I found myself alternately reading male and female onto the narrator’s voice depending both on the context and on other characters in a given story. This is not problematic. In fact, had the publisher’s blurb on the back not clarified the situation, I would not have been certain until near the end of the book that I was being addressed by the same person throughout. Let’s go with the feminine pronoun. She (the untitled narrator) is a wanderer who cannot settle anywhere for very long. She is influenced, early in the story, by an uncle who may be a suave world-traveler or may just be a swindler. His visits and stories inject glamour into an otherwise humdrum life, glamour which diminishes as the adult narrator moves from unnamed town to unnamed town communing with outcasts. In one story, a young woman is convinced that she is becoming invisible. She insists that there are thousands of people like her -- people who can glide through the world unnoticed and powerless. The woman makes a convincing case, but it is the narrator who eventually dissolves, incapable of finding a home. She can’t even find a name.

The book is organized by the names of the Lost Tribes of Israel, a conceit that provides an elegant system for dividing up ten connected stories. Only one of the tribes (Reuben) is named in the text itself. The rest are, as far as I can tell, place-holders; since we know nothing about these tribes Yellin is at liberty to associate them with members of her cast of misfits. Further structure is provided by periodic quotations about the tribes from various sources: anthropologies, pseudo-histories, the Talmud. The fact is that nobody knows anything about these tribes, who were exiled by the Assyrians in the eighth century BC and subsequently “lost” -- possibly assimilated into the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, possibly absorbed into other regional populations, possibly secretly surviving intact and waiting for the arrival of the Messiah. Any scholarship is purely speculative and tends to reflect attitudes of the author. The Reverend John Austen, for example, etymologized “Saxons” to “Sac’s Sons” or “sons of Isaac,” such that the English would be the true descendents of the lost Israelites. Manasseh ben Israel suggested that the tribes discovered America and settled there. These quotations argue with one another about where the tribes went and who they became. They also broaden the scope of the book and raise questions about exactly why Yellin’s characters are lost and what they might be lacking.

Before becoming an author of fiction, Yellin was a scholar of Biblical Hebrew. She remains fascinated with the power of books and the rituals of scholarship. Her narrator is a teacher and many of her characters are scholars, students, writers, and collectors. At one point the narrator of Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes informs us that her father is composing a book called Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes. The narrator’s book and her father’s book must be different, so how much does the title mean? The identity and fixed nature of these different books is as unclear as that of the narrator.

If all of this sounds a bit too contrived, then let me emphasize that Yellin is a masterful sentence-writer and that this book is a pleasure to read. Perhaps her ability is in some way connected to her background studying texts in which every letter has great spiritual significance. In any case, her sentences and stories are carefully constructed. She reveals the various permutations of melancholy with a bare minimum of elegant brushstrokes. Of her uncle:

What did my uncle do on his long wanderings? He looked at the landscape. He gazed at and examined the faces of people. He listened to language, traffic, music, banter. He smelled rot and incense; he tried all sorts of food. He slept under rocks and on benches, in trains and in boats, his cheek against granite, metal, sawdust, velvet.

Of her professor:

One of the first things I heard about him was that he had once tried to kill himself. I was surprised he had not succeeded. His body was full of potential violence.

Of a woman on a train:

She sat very still beneath a faded advertisement for a funicular railway, and when I struggled with the stiff window, she opened it for me with well-practiced hands. I asked her if she was going to the port, a stupid question, for, as she replied with a slightly sardonic smile, neither of us had much choice in the matter.

Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes is not a perfect book. Some of the stories are a little heavy-handed -- the one, for example, in which a little boy who believes that he was not born on earth but on another planet is described as “unearthly,” “ethereal,” “not entirely human.” But some of Yellin’s creations are so beautiful, so sparse and crystalline in their construction, that they make the entire enterprise worthwhile.

Stories about exile and diaspora written by a Hebrew scholar and named for Biblical tribes are necessarily about the Jewish experience. But Yellin uses the mysterious disappearance of these ancient people, who were but may no longer be practicing Jews, as a jumping-off point to examine different types of loss. The narrator’s suicidal professor, for example, can speak dozens of languages but has no one with whom to speak his native tongue, which he struggles to remember. A life spent acquiring languages has only brought him farther away from the language he knew as a child. He knows everything except his own identity. What could be lonelier?