‘Death of a Monk’ by Alon Hilu

death of a monkFinding this book at all was something of a happy accident, since I’d never even heard of the author, let alone the title. This isn’t really surprising as Hilu is an Israeli writer and Death of a Monk was translated from Hebrew by an American scholar. Browsing the shelves of an Aladdin’s cave of a second-hand book shop in London’s Soho district, I thought the title looked intriguing and pulled the book out for a closer look. Straight away the blurb caught my eye, with various euphemisms for gay content: ‘close friendship with another boy’, ‘all is not as it seems’, ‘ill-advised relationship’. I sometimes think we slash-lovers have to develop a special radar to spot these codes!

That said, nothing about the blurb or the cover prepared me for this book. The artwork and the quotes, including one calling the work ‘gleefully bawdy’ from The Tablet, led me to expect a Gordon Merrick-style romp, but the book is much, much more than that. It tells the story, in his own words, of Aslan Farhi, a young Jewish man growing up in 1840s Damascus, whose actions led to a ‘blood libel’ against the Jewish community who were accused of murdering a Christian monk.

Heavily based on fact, the book brings to life a period of history I knew nothing about. Formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, Damascus had come under the rule of the rebel, Christian, Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali. In the century before the foundation of the Israeli state when Jews were still scattered across the Middle East, Moslems, Christians and Jews lived cheek-by-jowl in the city, each with their own ‘quarter’ but mingling on a daily basis. Under the surface, though, the old tensions still ran deep and when the monk Tomaso and his manservant disappeared, it led to claims and counter-claims, betrayals and accusations, between and even within the various faiths.

The most noticeable thing about the book is its style. Hilu uses florid, almost poetic language. Here in the West writers are told not to let their voice get in the way of the story, yet Hilu does just that. Every noun has at least one adjective, tenses switch with confusing regularity, and Aslan himself hops between first and third person point of view, sometimes in the space of a single sentence. And oh! – those sentences! Some of them go on for years! Take this, for example:

And lo, in spite of his great weakness, when he takes notice of our sudden appearance at the door Alexis rises to his feet and greets us warmly, and he surprises Aslan by remembering his name, and their earlier embrace remains fresh in his memory, and after receiving us with a bright countenance he turns, suddenly outraged, his hands grasping a chair in his path, and asks Mahmoud why those men accused of Tomaso’s murder have not yet been hanged, why they are still contaminating this beautiful God-given earth with their tainted breath, for indeed their disgraceful, evil holiday is nigh upon them and their unleavened bread has been baked in preparation for the Seder night, drops of the murdered Tomaso’s blood concealed between its rows to satisfy their savage cravings, and he pounds the chair with a trembling hand, loses his balance and tumbles to the centre of the holy room, and now he pummels the chapel floor so that Jesus and Mary, sculpted into the wall above him, can witness his fury and the war he is waging.

Phew! That may be the longest sentence in the book (or even in existence) but it’s not the only example. Towards the end I was starting to find it tiresome and to wish that Hilu would just ’shut up and get on with it’ as the story of the libel unfolded. There are even frequent authorly interruptions of the ‘dear reader’ kind. These are explained at the end, in a neat twist, but I couldn’t help thinking the explanation would have been helpful earlier on. The style does, though, give the book a lyrical, almost biblical feel and some of the imagery is stunning:

…I thought about those persons I was leaving behind, and they are now buried in the pages of this book, alive one minute and frozen the next, trapped inside a short description, a fistful of words, their fate bound and sealed until a reader brings them to life….

Homosexuality forms an ongoing theme, as Aslan struggles to come to terms with his ‘different’ nature, his forced marriage, his distaste for his wife and his attraction to other men. His confusion – even fear – is strongly portrayed, at times bordering on melodrama, but I think that’s necessary to explain some of his more extreme actions. He’s a man in torment from the first pages of the book. There are sex scenes and some of these are surprisingly explicit for a mainstream book – the author isn’t afraid of calling a testicle a testicle. They are, however, always couched in the same very poetic language.

Overall, Death of a Monk is a strange book, but one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. It throws light on a fascinating episode in history, and not just on the ‘Damascus Blood Libel’ itself but also on a Middle Eastern way of life which has probably vanished for ever. It’s entertaining, it’s earthy, it contains flashes of gallows humour, and above all it’s a compelling read. The style may be peculiar at times, at least to our eyes, but I believe it adds to the atmosphere. The translator has done an excellent job maintaining Hilu’s authorial voice; lose that and it would be like rewriting the Song of Solomon as a particularly tedious newspaper report!

(Originally posted on Speak Its Name)

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