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Welcome Messiah!

Signs and Wonders by Melvin Jules Bukiet

Picador (St. Martin's Press) 384 pp. hardcover fiction $26.

Reviewed by Jules Siegel

In Signs and Wonders, Melvin Jules Bukiet explores the possible unfolding of the Second Coming, which climaxes on the eve of the year 2,000 at Eurodisney, where a huge banner like the one they usually hang out for the Elks convention proclaims, "WELCOME MESSIAH."

Fiction editor of the Jewish neo-Orthodox journal Tikkun, Bukiet draws caricatures of religious icons or figures on a pop version of the Tarot rather than real people. His characters, who have names fraught with significance such as Snakes Hammurabi and Ben Aleph, are presented almost entirely without real human feeling. Almost all their statements and thoughts are religious or philosophical. Each one stands for some figure of Bible, myth or saga, who, on examination, will be found to represent an even more ancient icon.

Not to be confused with computer screen buttons, icons are elements in the ancient pictorial language defined by art historian Erwin Panofsky, or, especially when spelled ikon, they are Slavic religious artifacts. In Signs and Wonders, they are avatars in a modern dress satire replaying the events leading to the Last Supper in a performance likely to appeal mostly to the kind of people who would enjoy the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain).

The book opens toward the end of 1999 in a thirteen-man cell in a prison barge moored on the Baltic coast of Germany. Twelve frankly depraved prisoners, condemned for crimes ranging from urinating on a church altar to mass murder, represent what appear to be various philosophical, historical and/or religious movements. The most appealing are, at best, disgusting. The thirteenth man, Ben Aleph (Son of the Beginning), a slovenly, catatonic Jew, is the Messiah-to-be. A great storm sinks the barge. Only the thirteen survive. Ben Aleph wakes up and leads them on a walk across the water to the shore, performs some charming miracles and is greeted as the newly-risen Messiah by wild throngs.

As might be expected, the Pope and other authority symbols don't cotton to this at all. Miracles or no, these men are escaped prisoners. The "so-called Messiah" (as public officials are instructed to call him) is the most dangerous of all and must be discredited immediately. Ben Aleph and his disciples are put in jail.

Outside, their followers, who now call themselves Alefites, begin burning themselves in garbage fires. In a sudden change of mood they turn orgiastic, charcoaled limbs caressing blistered breasts.

"Gradually, the literal flames of the parking lot faded to crackling cinders while newly kindled and stoked human flames intensified," Bukiet writes. "First one could hear subtle unbuttoning, unclasping and unzipping sounds of garments being removed. This was followed by gasps and audible shivers in the cold, which sent the goosebumped Alefites directly toward the nearest supply of hot and vital fluids, like thirst-crazed Saharan wanderers stumbling upon an oasis."

If this reminds you of Heironymous Bosch, you are right where the author wants you to be. Bukiet is not so much writing a narrative as describing scenes in a morality play. If Melvin Jules Bukiet were a painter, he'd be a Russian sots artist. The sots art movement assimilated the principles of American pop art, substituting Stalin's favorite cigarettes for Campbell's soup. The book's cover painting, by Grisha Bruskin, a Russian sots-artist, which Bukiet himself chose, is a ferociously raw caricature of religious art, at once ridiculing and glorifying its richly costumed archetypical folk characters.

When the pilgrims get a lawyer and a business manager (a drug wholesaling brothel owner) and incorporate, the Second Coming goes big time, with the customary media feeding frenzies, crass commercialization and shocking betrayals of a souped-up and channeled Bible Comics vehicle. As one might expect, the Second Coming has unanticipated consequences, including outrageous public sex orgies, bloody pogroms against the remaining German Jews by Alefite New Jews dressed in talleses and tzitsis, and the ritualistic serial murder of several of the disciples.

"What about the murders?" media killer bees shout at a wild press conference.

Ben Aleph responds: "Which murders?"

Bukeit writes, "Which murders indeed: the seven disciples or the two hundred victims of the Night of Conflagration or the six million European Jews or the sixty or was it six hundred or more million who had paid the price for some belief...?"

Says Ben Aleph, "We all die."

Because his characters are mostly lumpen sharpies, morons and murderers, Bukiet will surely be compared with Isaac Babel among the Cossacks. The difference is that Babel was actually there on a horse, while Bukiet is a cerebral prophet manifesting his shamanistic interior visions, which will be obvious and even fascinating to those who share his worldview or are willing to work themselves into it, but may very well baffle and annoy others. In either case, his readers will be reacting exactly the way the author planned.


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