There are many people trying to find an identity in London, and there is no shortage of writers tackling this. Rohan Kriwackek is the next in series of short stories, and adding to this diverse range, Kriwaczek boasts, quite literally, being Jewish. These stories could be in any realm of time in any city because there are few allusions to London. It is more, matter of factly, what it means to be Jewish in contemporary society.
In the sampler sent out by Duckworth Publishing, there are two, narrative driven tales, interceded by a more nuanced, mediation of Jewish life and ritual. Once in Golders Green… the title of the collection is also the opening story, which follows Rohan Krizaczek in either semi-autobiographical mode or displaying another manifestation of himself as he struggles with lucid dreams and his understanding of being Jewish. It struck a note of the most recently acclaimed Jewish writer Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question, as they struggle to, not understand what Judaism is, but how to be Jewish and how to act Jewish. The story opens with Rohan in a consultation with his doctor, who dies promptly, and is replaced by a female one ‘Dr Andrews, a waspish, sharp-nosed, middle aged woman with short reddish hair and the manner of a TV prison governess’. Things turn slightly Freudian, and should have perhaps been originally been set in a therapy, as Rohan delves into his dreams, and reveals his life as a pseudo-sexual zombie horror writer.
Rohan then doesn’t see the Doctors explanation as sufficient and seeks the help of an elderly Rabbi who is reluctant to speak to him. After speaking to him, all the of the Rabbi’s existence mysteriously disappears, and in turn seeks the help of another Rabbi to find the meaning of The Story of the Slave. The narrative almost appears if its going down the route of an old fashioned gothic horror tale with added Jewish that ultimately prevents it from turning into a gimmick of conventional plot twists. It opens with.
“Dr, Dr, I keep dreaming i’m Jewish'”
This deadpan, Groucho, Jewish humour is prevalent throughout. When Rohan leaves the Rabbi a ghost tale that he asked him to write, and its ironic ending, it epitomises this humour.
We don’t know the author of Rohan in the opening story but it would make sense if we was in the emerging 20’s, because the dreams indicate the turbulent youth and influences of popular culture and the identity strife. The Rabbi that Rohan meets is stereotypically Jewish, ‘The sight that greeted me did not disappoint. Rabbi Kraven looked every bit the part: the long grey beard and twisted sidelocks, the small round skull-cap, the ill fitting black suit in a strangely old fashioned cut, the white tassels hanging out under his jacket; it was all there, even the slightly oversized nosed’. It can only be assumed this is not derogatory, or Kriwaczek feels its O.K to say this because he would class himself as jewish, but for Rohan this is what he fears he might become in being jewish.
These stereotypes that Kriwaczek are constantly in combat as the Rabbi questions his writing influence on his dreams, ‘These dreams that you fear so much, the way you decribe them, they are all fragments of stories, and you, you claim to be a writer….’
“”But I’m not that kind of writer, I write horror, schlock-horror’
“Surely it’s all the same thing really. The same skills and techniques apply”
“I tried to restrain my irritation at the ignorance of this comment…”
Take that stereotype. The permanent instersitials of Rohan’s dreams leave us wondering whether the Rabbi Kraven really was real, or a figment of a repressed subconscious like his dreams, a dialectic conflict between Jewish and non-jewish identity. The first story begs the question of why did Kriwaczek use himself as the main character. He could have evaded using himself and been a nameless first person narrator, and this idea of identity struggle could have been more effective and less hinged on the narrative.
In the third story The Miraculous Rabbi Feldman one could be excused for thinking there’s an overlap from the first story, and we are in the same society, Rabbi Kraven, could be Rabbi Feldman. This time though, the Rabbi is the focal as his integrity is threatened both physically and symbolically when his synagogue comes under attack from thugs. Kriwaczek makes the thugs completely uncompromising, nonchalant, utterly devoid of any compassion,
“I’m going to fucking kill you, you mental motherfucker”
Standard, which later turns to,
“Hold on a minute mate, the fucking things jammed”
and when the gun fails to work again,
“I’m real sorry about this mate”.
But is thuggery inhumane? Or is it a by product of human nature. For Kriwaczek it seems, thuggery is inhumane that does not deserved to be discussed on a humane level.
Rabbi Feldman’s miraculous escape then becomes subject to tabloid press and exploitation. Everybody wants a piece of the miracle, but Feldman struggles with indignity of defacating himself.
‘The story made page six of the Sun, with the headline Would Jew Believe It’. However Krizaczek does little to distance his stereotyping of thuggery and tabloid press. As disdainful as journalism and particularly tabloid journalism, he ought to tackle the subject with more deftness. The symbolism of Rabbi Feldman’s tallis is worked well, as this is subject of the fabrications by the media, and investors. It boils down to the value offered by money and religion. But there seems to be no sanctuary from these two which is why the thuggery seems out of place, as there is no realm for them to fit in, they, unlike the characters of the other stories, there is no therapy for them, only for those stuck in the dogma of religion.
Kriwaczek’s acute mediations on philosophy are let down though by his undercutting, ill-judged stereotypes, ‘it was a young thug’s voice, sarcastic, theatening, distinctly working class, and it was coming from above them. They all looked up to see the gun pointed at them from the gallery in the hands of a tall young man with a skin-head haircut…’. Kriwaczek may has well had said ‘all working class are skin head thugs’. There is also a lot of dreaming and self-defecating; psychodynamic therapists would have their biggest field day since a Philip Roth novel.
These two set pieces sandwich a small, understated work, The Suitcase by the Door. Here, we have lonely, elderly man, Aaron reflecting on the day of Pulkhan haTik. He is surrounded by relics of jewish and family history,
‘They looked awkward and out of place in such grand surroundings, but this evening was Pulkhan haTik, the ritual of the suitcase, an evening that had always been lit by those candlesticks; they had been his mother’s, and his grandmother’s before her, possibly going all the way back to Rabbi Levshin, his Great-Great-Great Grandfather’. The sense of an old fashioned way of life is overwhelming and the sense of being trapped in this construct, this dogma, and this stereotype prevails. Like Howard Jacobson in the Finkler Question as Julian Treslove tries to manufacture his identity only travels in a circle of unfulfilled shame,
‘there was much that he wasn’t proud of ; that he might have done differently if Mama had lived’.
Kriwaczek’s collection does has a lot to offer, there is a confused philosophy embedded within it. It doesn’t convey itself as characters in an identity crisis, or even the writer in an identity crisis, more so characters stuck in an old-fashioned religion and way of life that has been battered senseless over the years. Kriwaczeks apparent intelligence is sometimes let down by his style, verging on the colloquial, ‘Oh and nobody ever saw or heard of the man in a broad-brimmed hat again’ to the offensive, but he has wit and irony to combat this.
Once in Golders Green… is published by Duckworth Overlook and is released in February 2013.