Books in Canada
Note: This is a somewhat expanded version of Michael Greenstein’s review for Forward.
Robert Majzels’s Apikoros Sleuth is the opposite side of the same coin as Outwitting History, if not a different coin altogether. Quebec translator, playwright, and novelist Majzels has composed his most demanding work in his third novel, as he stretches the genre to its limits. An amalgam of murder mystery and talmudic format, high and low brow, scatology and eschatology, Derrida, Jabès, Barthes, Kafka, Beckett, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Leonard Cohen, as well as other modernists and postmodernists, Apikoros Sleuth defies the reader’s expectations, challenging the act of reading itself. Replete with Joycean puns, neologisms, and vertical, horizontal, and marginal lines in Hebrew, Aramaic, English, French, Chinese, and Greek, the novel’s columnar construction imitates the book’s cover and setting of the murder mystery – a tenement.
The several characters in search of an author or a plot – Betty Boop, a dentist Pigafetta, Legrand, Mustapha, Howley, Giltgestalt (Shtick), and Booger Rooney – don’t develop in any familiar fashion beyond their cartoon-like names. On the surface, this avant-garde non-novel dazzles in its use of collage, montage, pastiche, palimpsest, and shifts in print size. These impossible juxtapositions underscore the tensions between the pagan and the sacred in a chorus filled with dissonance and cacophony.
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s statement, “If a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world,” serves as an epigraph to this anti-novel. Apikoros Sleuth is explosive, but its ethics are as difficult to find as its victims and murderers, for the experience of reading its pages is akin to listening to Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music. The constant refrain of “And yet. Not yet,” points to talmudic dialectic and deferment of any final answers in this epistemological novel or to radical inquiry into the nature of knowing. It should be read alongside Hélène Cixous’s Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint – both works steeped in heretical hermeneutics.
A kabalistic hand replete with Hebrew lettering appears on the first page as if to warn the reader about the physicality of turning the pages of Majzels’s postmodern text, fingering and eyeing printed matter. Indeed, the first quotation from Jabès in the right margin alerts us to this method of reading: “Mark the first page of a book with a red ribbon, for the wound is inscribed at its beginning.” Like a bloodhound, the red lettering in Chapter 63, 38a, picks up this hint, which is fully splashed in a blood-like Rorschach imprint on page 38b. The excerpt from Jabès’s Le livre des questions crowds the right margin of Majzels’s central text: “Story? Who would tell it?” These questions in turn are tracked and reinforced by interrogations in the left column: “What constitutes a tenement? At what point?” Majzels unravels and obfuscates these questions throughout the body of Apikoros Sleuth.
A tenement holds tenants and tractates within its twenty-two stories and room-and-a-half units. Alongside the structuralism of columns is the phenomenology of double elevators and staircases within a chapter entitled “Halakhah for the Messiah”. Since there are no discernible characters or plot in this ’novel’, the reader has to readjust to different strategies of reading that call attention to details of typography. Some of the pages resemble optometrists’ charts; others involve the zigzag of a game of chess, “knight to bishop three.” Majzels’s kabalistic shape-shifting focuses on the act of reading, whereby the reader becomes the sleuth tracking the murder of narrative in a maze of Semitics, semiotics, and semi-optics. This astigmatic reading navigates between the stigmata of mirrors, “pschat”, glass, gates, murder, mystery, “Pargod”, and news. If Apikoros Sleuth contains “A Legend of Nothing” and a caveat, “have mercy on these lines,” how is the reader to sleuth between being and nothingness when its author shows little mercy towards his readers?
Robert Majzels is a translator, and the answer to the question of his novel’s meaning lies in translation – an intermediate state between languages, cultures, genres, and categories. Only in multilingual Montreal (where A.M. Klein started out and Régine Robin’s The Wanderer continues the process of Yiddish-French dialogue) could Majzels translate French experience into Hebrew history and back again; in remote corners of the Diaspora he exposes whatever gets lost in translation (including occasional errors in Hebrew). His sleuth is a nomad of hermeneutics caught in a metaphysical mesh of wit, traveling between literal and figural signs, coursing between past and future (api)-chronology: “Before we were narrative, we were boots and vertigo.... We flung ourselves into the net of language. A horse was an inch of music.” Majzels’s private eye negotiates between the “I” of solipsism and “Thou” of ethics; his tour de force or trompe l’oeil is not for the faint of heart, head, or eye looking for unlikely answers to this dead-end whodunit. Although crime doesn’t always pay, Majzels breathes new life into exiled vessels. A limited deluxe edition will become a collector’s item to grace book shelves and coffee tables alike.
– Michael Greenstein