Cynthia Ozick’s “The Messiah of Stockholm”

“The Messiah of Stockholm” is the final book assigned for the class in Jewish American literature that my wife and I are taking. This is the fifth and last book for the class, and there were hints of each of the others in this one. “The Messiah of Stockholm” deals with writing; so did Philip Roth’s “Counterlife”. It deals with possible frauds and forgeries; so did Dara Horn’s “The World to Come”. It deals with a young man finding his way; so did Potok’s “My Name is Asher Lev”. And it deals with alienation in a society not quite one’s own; so did Bernard Malamud in “Pictures of Fidelman”.

And it is well written, mixes obvious fantasy with obvious reality with events that may or may not be real or fantastic or which may not fit into either category.

Lars Andemening is a struggling, young Swedish journalist (a part time reviewer of books on a newspaper in Stockholm that is struggling itself). But he doesn’t believe he is Swedish; he believes (based on photographic comparisons, and that the fact that he thinks he is able to channel him) that he is the son of murdered Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz. He wants to know everything he can about his ‘father’ (even learns Polish as best he can), to read everything that his ‘father’ has written, and even to find the lost manuscript of Bruno Schulz’s great work, “The Messiah”. Afraid to tell his co-workers of his secret, he confides in an old woman who owns and out of the way used book store somewhere in Stockholm, and who (like his imagined self) is a refugee.

One day, the manuscript shows up (or does it?). It is in the possession of a young woman, who claims to be the daughter of Bruno Schulz. She too finds her way to the bookstore – she is looking for someone to translate the work into Swedish from the Polish, and the bookseller suggests she contact Lars. Overcome with excitement at the prospect of having found the manuscript, Lars refuses to believe that he has a sister (or half-sister), doubting the authenticity of the woman’s identity, as well as the authenticity of the manuscript.

Well, was it “The Messiah”? And who was this mysterious young woman? And for that matter, who is the old lady in the book shop? And who is her “doctor” husband? And is everyone in Stockholm really a refugee from somewhere else, in hiding, with a fake name, a fake background, and a longing to be themselves.

Fact (there really was a Bruno Schulz and the manuscript of “The Messiah” is lost), fiction, and fantasy rolled into one. It’s a short book – 143 pages in our edition. It is densely written, and part of it is compelling. I only wish that Ms. Ozick had ended the book differently. I became confused at the end, when fantasy overtook reality, and the two never seem to sort themselves out. Until then, I thought I knew where the book was going, but by the time I finished, I no longer knew where it was leading….or even where it had been. Perhaps that’s the point?

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