Monday, April 7, 2008

Lessons from 'Gentlemen of the Road'

The working title for Michael Chabon's latest novel, "Gentlemen of the Road," was "Jews With Swords." It is a hilarious saga of two Jews who couldn't look less alike -- a willowy Frank and a giant African -- as they fight and out-think their way through the Khazar Empire, a land ruled by Jews after a mass conversion.

I finished this book while sitting in an airport, having just returned from Las Vegas. And though I thoroughly enjoyed the 196-page story, I found the afterword, in which Chabon discusses the oddity of a former literary snob writing about Jews with swords, even better.
This incongruity of writer and work suggests, of course, that classic variant of the adventure story (found in works as diverse as Don Quixote and Romancing the Stone) in which a devoted reader or author of the stuff is granted the opportunity (or obliged) to live out an adventure "in real life." And it is seen in this light that the association of Jews with swords, of Jews with adventure, may seem paradoxically less incongruous. In relation of the Jews to the land of their origin, in the ever-extending, ever-thinning cord, braided from the freedom of the wanderer and the bondage of exile, that binds a Jew to his Home, we can make out the unmistakable signature of adventure. The story of Jews centers around -- one might almost say stars -- the hazards and accidents, the misfortunes and disasters, the feats of inspiration, the travail and despair, and intermittent moments of glory and grace, that entail upon journeys from home and back again. For better and worse it has been one long adventure -- a five-thousand-year Odyssey -- from the moment of the true First Commandment, when God told Abraham lech lecha: Thou shalt leave home. Thou shalt get lost. Thou shalt find slander, oppression, opportunity, escape, and destruction. Thou shalt, by definition, find adventure. This long, long tradition of Jewish adventure may look a bit light on the Conans or D'Artagnans; our greatest heroes less obviously suited to exploits of derring-do and arms. But maybe that ill-suitedness only makes Jews all the more ripe to feature in (or to write) this kind of tale. Or maybe it is time to take a look backward at that tradition, as I have attempted to do here, and find some shadowy kingdom where a self-respecting Jewish adventurer would not be caught dead without his sword or his battle-ax.

And if you still think there's something funny in the idea of Jews with swords, look at yourself, right now: sitting in your seat on a jet airplane, let's say, in your unearthly orange polyester and neoprene shoes, listening to digital music, crawling across the sky from Charlotte to Las Vegas, and hoping to lose yourself -- your home, your certainties, the borders and barriers of your life -- by means of a bundle of wood pulp, sewn and glued and stained with blobs of pigment and resin. People with Books. What, in 2007, could be more incongruous than that? It makes me want to laugh.

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