Keats explores virtue and vice in ‘Book of the Unknown’

August 10, 2012

Jonathan Keats weaves intriguing and baffling fables about medieval Jewish society in The Book of the Unknown.

This 2009 collection, subtitled “Tales of the Thirty-Six,” revolves around the Kabbalistic notion that there must be at least 36 righteous people — the Lamedh-Vov, which is Hebrew for that number — at any time in order to justify humanity in the mind of God. “Without them, the world would be doomed,” the author explains.

Your preconceptions of sainthood are likely to be confounded by this American writer, however. The righteous folks described here include a fool, a liar, a gambler, a whore, a false messiah and a murderer.

Some of these characters find redemption through love. “Alef the Idiot” (as his tale is titled) achieves greatness both despite and because of his dealings with a demon, who persuades the mortal to surrender his soul; his intense bond with his wife helps erase his sins. “Chet the Cheat,” a professional sin eater, “Heyh the Clown,” an unusual circus performer, and “Yod the Inhuman,” a golem, all make sacrifices to alleviate injustices suffered by others.

Other achievements seem rather dubious. By introducing betting to a kingdom that has no understanding of games of chance, “Gimmel the Gambler” launches a very circuitous chain of events that initially devastates but eventually rewards the realm and its king.

And the case for the righteousness of “Vov the Whore” eluded me. An innocent girl enslaved by a heartless, ancient husband, she is a virgin until another man rapes her. This has the unlikely effect of fueling Vov’s passion for intercourse, and she sleeps with many of the men in her village for pleasure. She is reported to the authorities for adultery by a suspicious wife, but locals end up interceding on Vov’s behalf.

Is Vov righteous because her sexual drive was fueled solely by her interest in pleasure? Or is her virtue in uniting the villagers behind one cause when a cruel magistrate comes to investigate? The matter is left to the reader to decide, an authorial decision that will thrill some but frustrate others, including this individual.

I enjoyed, up to a point, visiting the medieval fairy-tale world of the Lamedh-Vov, but my enthusiasm flagged and I struggled to finish this collection. While its tales are beautifully written, The Book of the Unknown is simply not my cup of tea.

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