Biblical Paraphrase and Hummus: Conversation with Dror Burstein on “Muck”

To flesh out a vision of Jeremiah is to animate a person’s suffering, on some level. But generally speaking, literature as an industry needs rethinking. I hope not! I once heard you say at the World Voices Festival, “We all know poetry is the only thing worth writing.”
Well, novels are necessary: you can’t express everything with poetry. I’m serious. As I said, I keep painting the same picture. If one doesn’t wish to write kitsch — or, to put it differently, if one strives toward reality — depictions of suffering are inevitable. Historical events, for example, are unfit for a haiku or even a whole book of haiku. You know the ending, more or less, from the start, or at least you think you know where you’re headed. Jeremiah’s an anguished character, who endures his civilization’s precipitous decline under a corrupt and ineffectual government. I wish I could live and write in a place in which prophets are not needed. It’s really unethical. At some point I had an idea to import Jeremiah into the present and see what happens to him. In the original, there is a continuous mixture of biblical and modern Hebrew, sometimes in the same sentence. Instead, I took a lot of trips around New England, returning especially often to Walden Pond. For Jeremiah, the “on some level” is a bit of an understatement. But I guess I’m more useful here. What’s the best hummus you’ve ever had? That’s a lot to think about well before the fact that the book is a close rewriting of several key passages from the Hebrew Bible. If I find myself writing in this manner, I stop. But that’s a necessity, not an ideal form of writing. What’s special about this genre is that it frees you from having to be the sole inventor of the whole plot. I think I have a consistent interest in reality. He tells his neighbors they’re arousing their god’s wrath, which goes unheeded, and he sees his city burned as a consequence. Or perhaps I just need some fuel from my reserves to ignite a new drive. The concept of retelling a biblical narrative was borrowed from ancient books that do just that, like the Book of Jubilees from the second century BCE. Can he speak in the context of modern Hebrew? Do biblical Hebrew and modern Hebrew bump up against each other in the book? It’s almost like keeping a painting on your wall today and paying daily attention to it. It couldn’t have been easy to reproduce this idea, two layers of language merging into one textual flow. That’s not something mentioned in the biblical narrative; where did that come from? I mean, such a competition actually took place, some years ago. There are some magnificent writers here, not to mention rest of the world. Could we talk for a second about … hummus? Hummus plays an important role in this book — not only because it sets the stage for one of the most jaw-dropping events in the story, but because characters are often seen eating it. Not to put too fine a point on things, hummus has a reputation for both connecting and dividing the cultures of the Middle East. Repetitive prose has its charm. The stakes are always high in novel-writing. Your question helps me understand why I feel somewhat alienated toward this book. I can testify that he was capable, culinarily speaking. Actually, so much of the book is derived from biblical narrative that when I reached out to Burstein by email recently, he told me, “I think the genre of Muck is not exactly a novel, but what is called Rewritten Bible or Biblical Paraphrase.” The novel retells the story of the biblical prophet Jeremiah, against the backdrop of the political developments described in Jeremiah, Lamentations, and II Kings — which, if you know your Bible (or think about the word “jeremiad”), does not bode well for our protagonist, his king, or his city. Philip Glass’s fifth piano étude is an important piece of the soundtrack to Muck. Actually, he suggested translating it into English in the first place. But nothing can repeat itself in the exact sense. As for your first point, it’s true. Speaking of suffering, the sudden death of Jeremiah’s younger sister is an important part of his backstory — even on a family level, his life is marked by tragedy. But while Muck is in a sense a repetition, it’s not stylistically repetitive the way the étude is. I reached out to the author, who lives in Tel Aviv, by email. I tried using biblical quotations that I thought would be intelligible to a present-day reader. The below conversation has been edited for length and clarity. What does he eat? ¤
IAN DREIBLATT: At its core, Muck is very much a retelling of the events leading up to the Babylonian exile, as they’re narrated in the Bible. But also, what does he do for a living? Mustafa Kalboni. You can read this all here. You’ve got me listening. You’ve got a fine short essay on the symbolism of chickpeas here. I’d rather have Thoreau as a friend than Jeremiah, and I’d prefer living in Concord to Jerusalem. Meticulously observed and very beautifully written. That seems difficult! Hummus is my favorite dish and has been for almost 40 years now. I reckon I’ve consumed tons of it. You tend to make them similar to yourself to some extent. Oh yes, a lot. I guess I keep painting the same picture, only the frame changes. I think it’s awful, selling books you detest or don’t care about. It all ended up in a book of poetry that was published in the same year as the original Hebrew edition of Muck. Nevertheless, for me, this is the least interesting part of writing, as it seems almost obvious. Of course, he would have gone berserk had he known of his mother’s outrageous idolatry. It gives you a clear frame in advance, then lets you find your own way. Are you done with the character now? Removed from the outside reality of Israel, I’d thought I was going to finish Muck there. And like Burstein, he’s a scholar, trained in the interpretation of law, making his name as a poet. I don’t think her son would be outraged had he known about her small statuette. And this is the “natural” way of doing business in the book trade. I have the feeling you’re “contending with the past” here — is that a fair description? This was still slightly easier than building the whole thing from scratch. Which consists more or less of matter and energy of all sorts: outer space, human and nonhuman creatures (viruses and bacteria included), vegetation (mushrooms included). I got carried away with my own rendering of Jeremiah. I’m not sure there’s much “contending” with the past here. Gabriel Levin did great work. You touch something very interesting. You might say he represents the public, the world that won’t listen, but in a more active way. Despite its biblical narrative, Muck is shot through with concerns you’ve examined in your other books — family and lineage, astronomy and geology, the minds and rights of animals. I used to like reading books like that, Thomas Bernhard especially. I really like your Jeremiah — he’s a sweet kid when we meet him, and he greets his fate admirably. Although the novel is local in many senses, it is also about every human culture with corruption, aggressiveness, greed, and fear, and every person who speaks against that, with almost no one caring to listen. So, the sister is a continuation of a character from a novel I published four years before Muck. I’m not making it up. The earlier book is Sun’s Sister, right? In a more practical sense, maybe he’s a manifestation of my own inner voice, trying to convince me to stay out of this absurd travail of prose writing. DECEMBER 8, 2018

MUCK, THE LATEST novel by Israeli writer Dror Burstein to appear in English translation — in this case, a dexterous, canny one by the poet Gabriel Levin — is not easily described. Yes. I don’t really want to get into this, but I can say that I don’t set foot in any of the big bookstores in Israel — spaces from which almost everything I adore about literature is absent. The biblical phrases are not marked, and I invented some pseudo-biblical verses here and there too. But wait: the biblical Jeremiah does decry Israelite devotion to “the Queen of Heaven,” and other apparently popular pagan divinities. I think I was intrigued by him because I sensed his personality as one that actually existed, one I could have understood had he lived today. There was a place in Jaffa owned by Mr. You are perfectly right. Certainly it’s unhopeful music, fit for a dismal fate. Yes, she’s died twice now. Unfortunately, he passed away, and his son, Sultan, embraced a religious life and hasn’t continued the business. He doesn’t have a specific biblical analogue. Or perhaps only music can do it. Also, history’s largest bowl of hummus. I wanted to write those poems at Walden or Cape Cod. There’s always some unfinished business in a book, and I try to make up for what one book missed in the next one. That’s more than enough. You’ve said that “the genre of Muck is not exactly a novel, but what is called Rewritten Bible or Biblical Paraphrase.” What’s the difference? Will anyone listen? That’s life; suffering is part of the deal. These come up in Kin and Netanya — your two earlier novels in English — and I imagine in Pictures of Meat, which I can’t read until it gets translated. I’ve just finished Roland Barthes’s The Preparation of the Novel, translated into English by Kate Briggs. It doesn’t take a prophet to foresee trouble for the Judea of your novel, a blundering and compromised state, too invested in its increasingly antiquated future to perceive the urgencies of its beleaguered present. Another fascinating character is the literary critic Broch. Jeremiah’s mother is just an ordinary woman in this respect. As far as our leaders are concerned, they are driven by certain basic urges and needs, which haven’t changed so much. I wish I had the time to translate it into Hebrew. It turned out I didn’t even touch it. His chapbook how to hide by showing in the age of being alone with the universe is recently out from above/ground press, and he is among the translators of Pavel Arsenev’s Reported Speech, out now from Cicada Press. He’s a sort of protean villain; his role shifts across the book, but he’s never good news. He is probably the most historically knowable character in the Jewish Bible, a strong contender for having written not only the book that bears his name, but also Deuteronomy, the Torah’s final installment, which describes itself as having been “found” in Jerusalem’s temple. I think of the relationship between our present world and the ancient one more in terms of a continuous metamorphosis. After writing a few novels in which I had to invent everything myself, rewriting another text came as quite a relief! How do you understand his role in the story? Jeremiah’s family is complicated. One of my favorite scenes in the book is the short one in which his mother pulls out a secret idol she keeps of a female divinity and quietly venerates it. Among the residents of its battered world are an elderly book critic known to thrash young writers bloody, talking dogs, child-peddlers, blind falafel prodigies, security guards watching over imperial plunder at the silent edge of empire, a secret police operative posing as an angel in cheap plastic wings, and an elegant classical pianist who was kidnapped in central Europe and brought against his will to his home country, where he rules as king from his childhood bedroom. He has kind of a hang-up about it! The English translation of Muck is wonderful — nimble and resonant, managing a kind of code-switching that I imagine is more present in the original. He doesn’t just refuse to listen, he actively tries to eliminate some voices. The First Noble Truth. Today I’m not so sure about it. All I can say is that I have been long interested in Jeremiah, as a person more than as a prophet. Jeremiah is in many ways a fitting choice. I understand now that she keeps her idol in a can mainly because of her son. Maybe it’s history that’s repeating itself? Another great book is The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell, a biological meditation focused on one square meter of forest floor in Tennessee. There is an official Guinness record for this. Bringing a prophet into the contemporary world is a nice idea, but answering all of these questions, and many more, is the stuff of the actual work of writing. How do you see her faith? Read anything great lately, besides 2,200-year-old biblical retellings? I confess, I have no question. I mean, I don’t think most people learn from their ancient fore-parents, their history. Another planet, I guess. I was amazed and delighted to see Barthes extensively discuss Japanese haiku as a preliminary to novel-writing. To a certain extent, there are geopolitical similarities between Israel and ancient Judea. If there was some relief in not having to invent a whole plot, you surely paid for it with the high stakes created by your subject matter, right? This music, above all, repeats itself. Do we have a distorted view of you in the United States, because you’re primarily a poet, and what we’re reading here are the novels? Do you prefer writing one or the other? The scene in the book that features a “World’s Largest Hummus Bowl” competition, which might sound absurd, was taken from an actual ad I saw at a (hummus) restaurant in Abu Gosh, near Jerusalem. What’s more, after Israel had set the world record, the Lebanese overshadowed the Israeli achievement, weighing in at a mere four tons, with their own 11.5-ton bowl. As a poet, Jeremiah courts his favor somewhat. Your send-up of poetry scenedom is pretty spot-on. You certainly don’t seem too sanguine about the writing and publishing landscape you’re depicting. There’s no way around it if your hero is Jeremiah. I had to write the novel, but it didn’t give me much pleasure. I cannot say the same for, say, Moses or Abraham. Desert island hummus? ¤
Ian Dreiblatt is a poet, translator, and musician who lives in Brooklyn. You’re hardly just repeating yourself — though in Muck you are, in a very direct sense, repeating aspects of a biblical narrative. The drainage periods are of a flame that cannot find a candle to catch. I think that my best writing period was while teaching for a semester in Worcester, Massachusetts, in fall 2013. I have a fantasy of opening my own bookshop, in which every single book sold will be my own private and specific recommendation. I realized long ago that for me, there’s always some continuity between one book and the next. I wouldn’t sell you a poisonous sandwich, would I? A must-read for anyone in the profession of prose writing. In Muck, it seems almost to be a kind of counter-muck — an exalted, nourishing goop. What are your most consistent interests? DROR BURSTEIN: I wish I knew. The damage in Muck is done not by people who believe in other gods, but by people who believe too much in their own egos. That’s the risk in adopting an existing character. Where did that idea come from? I feel like a flame which catches a different candle every once and a while — some thick, some thin, some white, some red, et cetera. Israelites have always worshiped many gods — otherwise, there wouldn’t be such a need for so many prophets. Who are his parents?