|The North of God|
I started reading this little novella not really knowing what to expect. Melville House, the publisher, sent me this book back in August as part of a prize pack for participating in the Art of the Novella challenge. This is part of their (defunct? I can’t find anything on their website) Contemporary Art of the Novella series. It’s the third one that I’ve read, and all three have made me want to do their authors’ taxes, at least for the year. I remember briefly glancing at the blurb – something about Stern writing fantastical Yiddish based tales – and figured I’d like it. I didn't know it was going to morph into a Holocaust tale. Nothing wrong with that, but I wish I'd had a little warning (so I'm making sure you get one).
And I did like it. The first part was definitely a tale like none I’d read before. A “marriage” to a piece of furniture leads Herschel, a gifted Talmudic scholar, to abandon his studies and his intended bride to immerse himself in the earthly (or other-worldly) pleasures of an insatiable succubus.
The second part took a sickeningly horrific turn, to the area “to the North of God, where his jurisdiction no longer held sway.”
Velvl, a minor character in part one – takes over the narrative. He’s in a packed cattle car, standing in bodily waste, on his way to an unnamed concentration camp, telling Herschel’s story to a young mother and her child. Velvl is intent on keeping the pair entranced for as long as it takes to get to their ultimate destination.
He weaves ever more outrageous tales of how Herschel lived out the remainder of his days. Velvl’s imaginings are blasphemous, sacrilegious, darkly comic. His update on Purim, the Old Testament story in the book of Esther, is a raucous example.
The North of God is about the power or stories, or words, but also about their limitations. Because no matter how moving, a story by itself can take us only so far.