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Mosaic man /
Ronald Sukenick.
1st ed.
Normal, IL : FC2, c1999.
261 p. : ill. ; 22 cm.
1573660795 (alk. paper)
More Details
Normal, IL : FC2, c1999.
1573660795 (alk. paper)
catalogue key
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One


Is It Good For The Jews?

    The family comes from Bialystok, but he knows that any traces there are gone. In 1941 there were 50,000 Jews in Bialystok. In 1945 1,085 remained, some actually from neighboring towns. That means at least 48,915 were killed, among whom no doubt all the Sukenicks. Figure it out.

    On top of that there were pogroms and pervasive anti-semitism in Poland even after 1945, and later, in 1968, a government campaign drove almost all remaining Jews out of the country. After the war there were 250,000 Jews of the original 3,000,000 who survived or returned. Today, in a nation of 39,000,000, there are 4,000 Jews, 46,000 less than there were in Bialystok alone before the war.

    So why bother going back to Bialystok, or anywhere in Poland for that matter? There's nothing to go back to. No, his destination is the Sukiennice, the huge Medieval cloth hall in the center of Kracow. Because he's searching not for his origins, but for Ronald Sukenick himself. I mean, given Jewish grandparents from Poland, he's always suspected a Polish component of his personality absent to his consciousness.

    His family, you see, had owned a cloth mill in Bialystok. And then there is the name, a lexicographer in Warsaw works it out for him. Sukno is a kind of fine, woolen cloth used for overcoats. And a sukiennik is one who makes it. So destination Sukiennice, simple as that. Sukenick seeks sukiennik.

    Ron is there to give readings from his fiction. This is just after Jaruzelski's military takeover that crushed Solidarity until it rose again to triumph years later.

    He starts in Warsaw. There his hotel is filled with Arab terrorists. Warsaw's where they come for R & R he's reliably informed. At breakfast a man in a red checkered kefiyah and a heavy black moustache tries to sell him a small golden hand, charm bracelet size, and a tiny archaic calf statuette, also golden. Claims he "got" them from a Jew. Ativistic warnings activate in primal circuit boards. Bloody Canaanite idols? Pre-abramic oedipal butchery? Moloch offal? Human burnt offerings? Allah suicide assassin? Jesus cannibal sacrifice? Ron has the feeling these gilt symbols, symbols of get and got, grasp and greed, are part of an impenetrable ancient code, read in steaming entrails by priests hostaged to death. Gilt for guilt. Fascist death cult nihilism. Bondage and libertinage licensed by potent chthonic gods rising from mud, blood and shit. Maybe it's only his imagination, but he turns his back and walks away, the PLO type still dangling his charms.

    Now he's in Lublin, the focus of his professional trip whose underlying purpose is to give what intellectual and moral support he can to the increasingly oppressed but quixotic intelligentsia. Solidarity. With this country and its new death camp saint whose Auschwitz cell is the only one decorated with fresh flowers. It's another Jew who mentions that the martyr priest, Kolbe, had sacrificed himself for another Pole in the camp and had run an anti-semitic periodical before the war. When Ron complains about the viciously anti-semitic caricatures in a Wajda film, his closest Polish associate informs him it's not anti-semitic, that's just how Jews are. But the status of Jews has improved recently since the regime tried to persecute them as the instigators of Solidarity, because everybody knows there are almost none left.

    In Lublin the patrons of the restaurant Ron is eating in are toasting Brezhnev's death just that day, while on the campus of the university, students walk around sullenly under the eyes of the brutish ZOMO security police, which is in process of suppressing uprisings in other cities--Gdansk, Warsaw, Katowice and Nowa Huta, adjacent to Kracow. The only news about the strikes and demonstrations is coming through on BBC, Radio Free Europe and Voice of America, when they aren't jammed. But it's clear that the Polish cavalry on its horses, waving its swords, is still charging the enemy tanks.

    Considering ZOMO surveillance, frankly, Ron is for once glad to have the Embassy's International Communications Agency staff on his case. But is the ICA also the CIA? Do they also covet the Golden Calf? Or are they part of a CIA international anti-Moloch SWAT team? Moloch, after all, is the lord of the flies. Whose side is who on? Who's on his? Anti-semite Walesa patriots? Voice of America freedom mongers? CIA liberation spies? What code scans here?

    Surveillance is heavy-handed. Every time you make a phone call the ring signal is punctuated by a message that says the call is being recorded. But most people ignore it. The kids are defiant.

    "I took a trip to Czechoslovakia," says a student, "and people there are very nervous about police spies. We have them here too, but we don't care."

    Ron and these rebellious students have no trouble with rapport. Ron understands very well that you can get to a point beyond which you don't care. He thinks of the Jewish ghetto fighters in Poland's cities, fighting an impossible battle till they're wiped out. But for Ron something is missing. The students have no sense of the contradictions involved in quixotic rebellion against a society of which you need above all to be part. The desire to live a life you haven't been able to live deprives you of some of the the joys of suicide. The students' situation seems difficult, but not impossible. The impossibility of the Jewish situation in Poland, is now, Ron supposes, clear.

    A young Jewish intellectual tells Ron a story about how, during the government's post-war purge of the remaining Jews in the country, an old Jewish revolutionary walked into a Party meeting and was confronted by a misbegotten anti-Zionist banner declaring, "JEWS BACK TO SIAM." No doubt a Polish joke, confusing Sion with Siam. But in fact Ron is a Siamist, if not a Zionist. He's haunted by the absence of Siam. The absence of an impossible promise to meet the impossibility of the situation.

    According to Ron's snapshots, the weather of the Sukiennice is damp, grey fog condensing on grey stone. The old cloth hall is very large, its facade a graceful arcade on whose slender pillars the weight of the massive structure seems to rest. It's set in an immense plaza with the Baroque tower of the old town hall on one side and a small Byzantine church on the other, so ancient it is partly sunk into the ground. The people hurrying across this great space are hunched over and have their hands in their pockets. Inside the Sukiennice cloth is still sold in the stone stalls where, Ron feels sure, his grandfather sold his in the 1870's.

    And there outside the Sukiennice Ron finds the absent Ronald Sukenick. It's not simply that she has his father's green eyes, a trait common to many Poles. Though she is emphatically Slavic and Ron anything but, he feels he's found his Siamese twin.

    They meet by appointment in front of the monumental statue of Adam Mickiewicz, Poland's liberation hero-poet, off to one side of the Sukiennice. She had told Ron that she wanted to meet in a public place because that was the only way to be private.

    Ron doesn't know how he's going to recognize her but in fact there's no problem. He's been told that she would approach him very openly, that that would be the key. So when a stunning green-eyed blond appears before him, and when she immediately says in a resonant voice, "Bona knabino malfermi," Ron is not at a loss for words. As a Doctor of Philosophy in a literary discipline he recognizes Esperanto when he hears it, and of course knows that Esperanto was invented by a Jew from Bialystok.

    With his training in languages Ron is able to decipher her greeting almost instantaneously and compose an appropriate reply. What she has said to him translates roughly as, `Good open girl.'

    "Malbona knabo fermi," responds Ron. `Bad closed boy.'

    Her taut face relaxes and she smiles. They lapse into English, their resources of Esperanto having been exhausted.

Marta is a writer and translator. She's one of the few writers publishing in the underground press under her own name. She hardly speaks at first, staring dully at the ground as they walk around the square. The adjective that occurs to Ron is morose.

    Ron knows that Marta had been interned for many weeks after the military coup and when released had been fired from her job as a journalist. She then found her current job as a writer for an obscure veterinary magazine which has suddenly developed an allegorical level in the manner of George Orwell, along with a new audience.

    Ron supposes that, like many of her compatriots, she's suffering a profound depression because of the political situation, but he's wrong. As soon as she starts talking about that situation she becomes energized, animated, almost gay. Her tactics, she says, are different from those of many Solidarity people. The underground must not hide itself, she says. That's why she uses her real name in underground publications, and why she wants the underground press and magazine she's helped start to be openly defiant.

    "We are not subversives," she says. "We are fighting a war for our own country. It belongs to us."

    "Many think it's a war you can't win."

    "Of course we can't win. Not now. Maybe not ever."

    "Then why fight?"

    "Because we're stupid. Stupidity is our means of survival. It is what you call a Polish joke. I have heard people say that Walesa is stupid. Maybe he is. But sometimes it takes some really stupid people to change a situation the smart people know is hopeless."

    When she starts talking about stupidity Ron suddenly feels fight at home, back in Siam, so to speak, impossible promise. He's always disliked those smart people who know what it's all about, the wise guys born to succeed, who are realistic and cynical and forget about Siam to run after their golden calves. Now he knows why. It's because he's stupid. He's stupid because he wants to be stupid, obstinately stupid like his friend in the Sukiennice.

    So here's to you, Marta, and to stupid people everywhere. Marta is a sukiennik. When you want something really dumb, a Siam of any sort, you need a sukiennik to make it. Out of whole cloth.

    With Marta's help Ron buys a piece of cloth in one of the stone stalls of the Sukiennice. Later, whenever he looked at it, he would think, a sukiennik is one who makes it.

    That evening Marta takes Ron home with her. For dinner. And she wants him to meet her husband. The husband, a small, dark young man with mud colored eyes, is some sort of intellectual, it's not clear to Ron exactly how he makes a living. He seems in-grown, driven into himself. Ron wonders if he's Jewish or part Jewish, in the long tradition of Jews who have disappeared into a given national culture. Anyway, Ron immediately identifies with him too. As well as with Marta.

    Marta has gone to some trouble to make a dinner. Maybe it's because Ron's expressed an interest in traditional cooking. The first course is a delicious, sweet soup, which turns out to be prune soup. After they eat it Marta shows Ron the recipe:

Wash and soak 800 g prunes overnight.

Cook them in 2 litres of water until they

are soft, sieve or liquidize, add 200 g

sugar and bring back to the boil. Slowly

add 0.20 litres smetana or milk. Serve

hot with potatoes or without smetana or

milk if a meat dish is to follow.

"What do you think?" Marta asks.

    "I think it's very good," says Ron, wondering what smetana is and about the meat or milk dish proviso.

    Much of the dinner table talk is about the political situation, especially about the recent appointment of Glemp by the Polish Pope to replace himself as Cardinal of Poland. Glemp. The sound of a gob of spit hawked up in the throat of a brutish peasant. Every Polish intellectual Ron has met has clutched his head and groaned at the very sound of the name. Ron keeps wanting to ask the political question that pervaded his childhood: Is it good for the Jews? But he stops himself. What Jews?

    The next course is a sort of dumpling stuffed with liver. When they're done Marta again shows Ron the recipe:

Wash 400 g beef liver, drain and grill.

When cool put through a mincer and mix

with 300 g onion, chopped and fried, a

chopped hard-boiled egg and salt and

pepper. Make a dough from an egg, 300

g flour and water. Roll out thinly and cut

into 3 cm squares. Place a portion of the

filling on each square. Wet the edges and

fold over, seal well. Drop into gently

boiling water, and simmer for about 15

mins. Take out with a perforated spoon,

drain and fry in hot oil on both sides.

Serve as a hot hors d'oeuvre or to accompany

a main dish.

    This is obviously some Polish version of kreplach, Ron realizes. For the next dish, she gives Ron the recipe ahead of time:

Rinse 200 g beans and soak overnight in

cold boiledwater. Rinse 2 kg beef, cut

into large cubes, sprinkle with salt,

pepper, paprika and garlic to taste. Heat

100 g oil in a casserole and fry the meat

with 200 g chopped onion. Add the

beans, cover with water and simmer for

about 2 hours. Now add 200 g buckwheat

kasha, cover the casserole and

leave in a low oven until ready to serve.

    When the dish is served Ron realizes he's eating cholent, there can't be any doubt about it. Marta looks at him inquisitively as he tastes it.

    "Is it right?" she asks.

    Ron is no cholent expert, but he nods in wonderment. "Is it cholent?" he asks.

    "I hope so," she says.

    But when she serves him carrot and apple tzimmes for dessert, Ron finally understands she's trying to cook him a Jewish meal.

    "People our age have never known many Jews here," she explains. "We want to know what Jews were like. What their culture was, what they ate. How they thought."

    After dinner the three of them sit on the couch and drink vodka. Soon it becomes obvious to Ron that the way Marta keeps touching his thigh is not accidental. He starts getting turned on. Ron prefers his triangles with two women but he's not doctrinaire. The husband, though, seems a little tense.

    Ron has the impression this is something they've done before, or more likely something Marta's done before and wants to try again. She's told him she's travelled in the States and who knows what bad habits she's picked up there.

    Marta lets her hand rest on Ron's knee and looks into his eyes. "They say Jews have more fun," she says. "Is it true?"

    "It's true," says Ron, "but is it fun?"

    "Malbono knabino malfermi," says Marta, sort of wriggling as she says it. `Bad open girl.'

    The husband seems still more tense, sitting rigid with his hands in his lap, stiff as a puppet. Is it fun? Or is it something else?

    As a Doctor of Philosophy, Ron can perceive someone's wife coming on to him. He can also apprehend when the husband gives tacit permission. He even understands when the husband wants to get into the act. But as a Doctor of Philosophy he also comprehends that the way such things happen is they either happen or they don't happen and either way it's because of factors out of your control.

    Here, Ron guesses, the factor out of control is that though the husband wants to be sensually free he isn't free and as a Polish or even European Jew, if that's what he is, he'll never be free. What would it take to bring such a puppet to life, the life of the world? Short of electroshock? Short of amnesia? There's something fishy here. For everything you pay, the more you know the less you play. That's Jewish rules. Here clay remains clay, no spark. Here joy is guilt, freedom is Moloch. Here earthiness ends beneath the earth. Here death makes you free, sensuous life never.

    And maybe it shouldn't. Is it good for the Jews?

    What Jews?

    In any case Ron has to get to sleep early tonight. Tomorrow at dawn he leaves Kracow. He's with great difficulty altered his morning's intinerary to go to Auschwitz.

    Ron gets up, finally, and says he has to go to sleep.

    "Good closed boy," says Marta, drily.

Copyright © 1999 Ronald Sukenick. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1999-01-18:
Like a classic rock band's 10th comeback album, Sukenick's latest avant-garde fiction invokes predictable precursors, leans heavily on outdated machismo and seems designed to show readers how hip, and how persecuted, Sukenick thinks he (still) is. Mosaic Man reads much like an addendum to Sukenick's memoir, Down and In, which traced the demise of Village bohemia in the '60s and '70s. Most of the new work tracks "Ron"'s search for his Jewish roots; section titles allude to those in the Hebrew Bible, where the Five Books of Moses (here, "Genes," "Ex/Ode," "Umbilicus," "Numbers," "Autonomy") are followed by "Prophets" (here, predictably, "Profits") and "Writings" ("Hand Writing on the Wall"). "Ex/Ode" alternates a Robert Crumb-like fantasy about Captain Midnight with pages of rather sweet transcribed and taped conversations among "Ron" and his mother and relatives. The later chapters brood on anti-Semitism and Jewish identity. "Numbers" evokes the residual bigotry Sukenick encountered when he lived as a student in Paris, and throws in some repellent, misogynist anecdotes. "Autonomy" brings Sukenick through modern Poland, where he meditates on the Holocaust, and then (in the book's high point) to modern Israel, where a spooked Sukenick cluelessly wanders about seeking the Golden Calf, which archeologists have (supposedly) just unearthed. The final sections return to cartoonish and Vonnegut-esque fantasy, with left-wing sermons about poverty and crime. After the rapes and gangbangs of Sukenick's Paris, these straightforwardly moralized arguments seem out-of-place; meant, perhaps. to counter Sukenick's narcissism, such passages simply demonstrate it again. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Library Journal on 1999-03-01:
"Personally, being Jewish is just an advanced case of being human, and being human may be a personal disease that's run its course." This novel by one of the most significant writers and editors of postmodern fiction explores what it means to be human in an often-inhumane world. The book is structured very loosely after the Bible, with chapter names like Genes, Ex/ode, Umbilicus, Numbers, and Autonomy. Sukenick employs graphic symbols, transcripts of tape recordings, and other metafictional techniques, but this is primarily a thinly veiled autobiography for the first 200 pages. His tales of womanizing and debauchery support his claim that "Freud didn't invent the id, he just dropped the Y," but this book is far more than a drunken roll in the literary hay. To paraphrase an old rye bread ad, you don't have to be Jewish or postmodern to love Mosaic Man. Highly recommended for both academic and public libraries.ÄJim Dwyer, California State Univ. Lib., Chico (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, January 1999
Publishers Weekly, January 1999
Booklist, February 1999
Library Journal, March 1999
New York Times Book Review, July 1999
San Francisco Chronicle, July 2000
San Francisco Chronicle, August 2000
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Bowker Data Service Summary
Drawing on traditional Jewish lore, Ron Sukenick uses the vast scope of post-Holocast Jewish experience and places it within pop culture. Mosaic Man retells the life of the author in the style of Henry Miller as he stitches together his identity.
Unpaid Annotation
Using verite techniques like tape recording and "sampling, " Mosaic Man retells the life of one Ron Sukenick a la Henry Miller as he simultaneously stitches together his identity as a writer and a Jew. Spanning a range from rough sex to quasi-theological speculation, from moral injunction to liberating candor, the book is a mosaic of episodes making the case that in the postmodern world the parts are the whole. Like Sukenick's influential first novel, UP, Mosaic Man is a major work that continues his lifelong preoccupation with the quest for truth through fiction.

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