Signs and Wonders
by Melvin Jules Bukiet
Picador (St. Martin's Press)
384 pp. hardcover fiction $26.
Reviewed by Jules
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
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
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.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]