Book Review: Muck: A Novel

In this re-telling of the life of Jeremiah, the second major prophet in the Hebrew Bible, Dror Burstein, an Israeli poet and novelist who teaches literature at Tel Aviv and Hebrew universities, interweaves all aspects of the modern world, including cell phones, fax machines, computers, and high-speed transit with the ancient Jerusalem in which the First Temple dominates the horizon. The two timeframes exist side-by-side, with Jeremiah and the other characters straddling both worlds.

The setting of Muck: A Novel (published in Hebrew in 2016 by Keter, and in English translation by Gabriel Levin in November 2018) is both present-day Israel and  seventh-century B.C.E. Judea, where a struggling young poet named Jeremiah is called upon by God to be a prophet.

It’s bad enough he has to contend with literary critics, one of whom hates Jeremiah’s work so much he hits him with the writer’s own computer in the novel’s opening scene. But that’s nothing compared to the backlash he endures after he warns every one of the impending foreign invasion and catastrophe, sometimes via intercom at the king’s castle or through a loudspeaker.

This confluence of historical periods and events in the literary genre of magical-realism creates a fantasy, apocalyptic world with humorous twists. Dogs and other animals can speak and assist humans with their tasks. The invader Nebuchadnezzar drives a Mercedes with a mini-bar. The Judean king rides a motorcycle, and his wife undergoes plastic surgery. Soldiers invade Jerusalem using helicopters. Exiled Jews begin their journey from Jerusalem to Babylon by light-rail.

In words put into the reluctant prophet’s mouth by various angels, Jeremiah, in passages from the Bible, warns that Judea will fall into the hands of its enemies, the Temple will be destroyed, and the Israelites will be exiled from the Promised Land as punishment for still-prevalent idol worship (literally, in the ancient timeframe – including child sacrifice – and figuratively in the modern timeframe), government corruption, and unethical and unjust behavior. In short, Israel is paying the price for violating its covenant with God.  

As Jeremiah foretells, the Babylonians invade, Nebuchadnezzar installs a new puppet king, and Jerusalemites are either slaughtered or flee. Jeremiah is tortured, thrown down into a mud pit and left to die in the muck, hence the novel’s title. “Muck” also signifies what a complete mess we humans have made of everything. As Jeremiah surveys the ruins of the Holy City, he bemoans his personal fate and the human condition:

“Suddenly he grasped the whole of the Bible, from the beginning of creation to the present moment, as a book whose end could never have been other than utter destruction…it was only a question of time until a nation would be set apart and chosen, and only a question of time until that choice would lead to aloofness and arrogance and rebellion, for the demands upon them were too difficult… Jeremiah understood that his fate, his abandonment were never matters  of chance, they were the whole point….”

I am always struck by how timely and prescient the Hebrew Bible is in its complex portrayal of human nature and society’s flaws. How true and relevant today are Jeremiah’s critiques! Although Burstein is protesting modern Israeli society, his critique extends to all who are guilty of worshiping the false gods of success, money, and power, who tolerate human suffering, despoliation of the earth, and economic and social injustice.

I enjoy fictional accounts and interpretations of biblical figures, all of whom are as complex and flawed as any novelist could invent. Muck is a long and dense book, a challenging read. But if one surrenders to the power of Burstein’s imaginative and often-poetic prose, it is worth the effort.