Book Review: The Ruined House
Our ancient sages placed great emphasis on knowing “from where you came” (Pirkei Avot 3:1). Andrew P. Cohen, the protagonist of The Ruined House (Harper Perennial, 2018), does not know this. He has cut himself off or, more accurately, has never even considered his connection to Jewish history and tradition.
The word “house” in the title of this fascinating novel by Iranian-born Ruby Namdar may refer variously to Bet Israel, the House of Israel (the Jewish people); to the magnificent Second Temple in Jerusalem; and also to Andrew’s moral and emotional life – the “house” of his soul. It may even refer to the messy, overly decorated house in the suburbs that Cohen occupies with his family, in contrast to his sparse modern apartment in Manhattan, where he lives by and for himself.
Namdar tells the story of what happened to what were once perfect houses.
At the beginning of the novel, Andrew has it all. A prominent professor of comparative culture at New York University, he is about to receive a coveted promotion. Loved by his students, he contributes brilliant articles to the best literary publications. He is handsome and in great physical shape for a man in his 50s, and an inheritance allows him to travel widely.
He shares a beach house every summer with his ex-wife Linda, with whom he has a wonderful relationship. His two daughters adore him, even though he had deserted his family. His beautiful, 26-year old-girlfriend demands nothing. He enjoys the concerts, museums, restaurants, watering holes, and coffee houses of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the Promised Land of the modern American Jewish intellectual elite, of which he is a star.
But all is not well with Andrew. He is divorced not only from his wife, but also from all obligations and connections to others, from community. Alienated from his moral and spiritual core, he is clueless that it is the High Holiday season.
Suddenly he begins to experience strange sights, sounds, and visions full of blood, fire, and chaos. At first, he casts off these episodes and continues his wonderful life, but as the visions become stronger and more frequent, he is finally overwhelmed, and his life collapses. He can no longer write. The new position at the university is awarded to someone else. His body deteriorates. His ex-wife finally castigates him for his narcissism. His girlfriend leaves him. He, his clothing, and his apartment are in filthy disarray
Namdar presents Andrew’s visions in italicized sections interwoven into the narrative, as well as in separate passages formatted like Talmud text, with and surrounding commentaries from actual rabbinic sources. Namdar’s passages describe the preparation for the ancient substitutionary atonement rituals performed by the High Priest in the Second Temple on Yom Kippur, observed by another priest, Obadiah, who may or may not be Andrew in a past life. (Andrew’s last name is “Cohen,” so he is a descendent of the priestly caste of Kohanim.) The destruction of the Second Temple mirrors the destruction of Andrew’s “perfect” life.
The novel is replete with symbolism, starting with the fact that it is divided into seven books. The number seven, as seen in the seven days of Creation and appearing hundreds of times in the Bible, represents the wholeness and perfection of God; in numerology, it is considered a powerful and lucky number.
After The Ruined House won the 2014 Sapir Prize, Israel’s highest literary award, the rules of the prize were changed; only Israeli writers who reside in Israel are now eligible. Namdar was raised in Israel but has lived in New York City for decades – which is ironic, as the book seems to suggest that one cannot live authentically as a Jew in the Diaspora.
Namdar carefully details Andrew’s downward personal journey, often repetitively, for more than 500 pages – but then ends the story all too suddenly. Still, The Ruined House is a challenging and thought-provoking read, brilliantly written with vivid descriptions of both Andrew’s life and visions. It is well worth the effort.