Saturday, May 15, 2010

God's Grace by Bernard Malamud

What might please God would be some sensible arrangement of the lives of the apes on the island into a functioning social community, interacting lives; and with Cohn as advisor and protector to help them understand themselves and fulfill the social contract. Maybe start with a sort of small family and extend into community? You are not the chimps your fathers were -- you can talk. Yours, therefore, is the obligation to communicate, speak as equals, work and together build, evolve into concerned, altruistic living beings. Not bad if it worked. How could Cohn know unless and until he tried? On this island more seemed possible than one might imagine.

My then-girlfriend Liz gave me this book to read, cautioning me that it wasn't necessarily a good book, but had a very interesting concept. Malamud, I said--interesting? I can't think of many books that I would describe as less inherently interesting than The Assistant, which is the only Malamud book I had read.

But Liz was right on both counts. God's Grace is just the kind of bizarre nugget I love: Its protagonist, Calvin Cohn, is the last man on Earth, having survived a nuclear holocaust by being in a pressurized chamber at the bottom of the sea when the nuclear bombs destroyed everyone else. God is dismayed:

...[T]hat you, Mr Cohn, happen to exist when no one else does, though embarrassing to me, has nothing to do with your once having studied for the rabbinate, or for that matter, having given it up.

That was your concern, but I don't want you to conceive any false expectations. Inevitably, my purpose is to rectify the error I have conceived.

But God does not say where he will strike Cohn down, or when. Fearing his imminent end, Cohn prays for mercy and heads off to a vacant island with a chimpanzee previously owned by a fellow scientist. He names the chimp Buz; serendipitously, Buz's former owner has surgically bestowed upon him the gift of speech. There Cohn and Buz try to recreate some measure of civilization.

Liz was right also that it is not a well-written book; Malamud's style can be graciously described as inelegant:

One day when the sun shone golden, and a summer breeze blew an armada of long white clouds through the cerulean ocean-sky...

But I found my affection for the book growing. The broad strokes that Malamud begins with become slowly finer: Buz discovers another group of chimps living on the island and teaches them--almost miraculously--how to speak. Cohn tries to build a society among the chimps, but his efforts are less obviously parable-like than the book's early chapters, though certain elements of strife within the group neatly mirror broader social issues. One source of tension is that Cohn, having once studied to be a rabbi, tries to instruct the chimps in Judaism, but Buz was raised a Christian by his former owner.

Is God's Grace an allegory for the relationship between Judaism and Christianity? A chimp named Mary Madelyn expresses a romantic interest in Cohn, and although at first--ahem--"Cohn observed her flabby, wilted flower, and the sight of it made him slightly ill"--he begins to wonder if a human-chimp offspring might not represent the redemption of the world and the cornerstone of a new, more altruistic society. They name their child Rebekah, after the ship from which they came.

(I will issue a spoiler alert here.) The associations seem clear: As father, teacher, and provider, Cohn emulates God in his relationship with Buz. When Cohn and Mary Madelyn (simultaneously Mary the virgin and Mary Magdalene, the prostitute) engender Rebekah, it is the Jewish god ushering in the Christian era. If Rebekah is Christ, then her sacrificial death should be no surprise. Esau, a violent chimpanzee resentful of Cohn's authority, sparks a mutiny among the group, some of whom take the child by force and drop her from a great height. Buz plays Judas.

All of which leads to three conclusions about the nature of Christ and Christianity in God's Grace. First, Rebekah's existence is purposeless; though Cohn expects her to found a new race and redeem the old, there is nothing redemptive about her birth or death. Second, the passage from the Jewish era to the Christian era is the cause of the violence of the book's final chapters, since it is Cohn's intimacy with Mary Madelyn that incenses the jealous Esau and Buz to murder. Finally, though Christ is the offspring of God so he represents the death of God; in return for his actions the chimpanzees slit Cohn's throat.

It seems to me that God's Grace is a lament of the way that Christianity both springs from and threatens Judaism, the son that devours the father. It is no mistake that Buz is depicted as a Christian; Christianity is given to the Judases. After the murder of Rebekah, the chimpanzees revert and can no longer speak. Wisdom is forsaken.

Is this too strong a reading? Perhaps, but it is the one that makes most sense to me. I would love to hear others, if I ever encounter someone else who has read this book.

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