BOOK REVIEW / A sign of shame and crossbones: The God-Fearer - Dan Jacobson: Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
IN A village in central Europe, towards the end of the Middle Ages, a very old man called Kobus is waiting to die. He is widowed, his children have grown up and gone away, his business is sold, he lives on his own.

Then one day he becomes aware that he is no longer alone, his house begins to creak and stir and he feels that he is being watched until, suddenly, without warning, there are two children kneeling on the floor at his feet, apparently engrossed in a game. Though they seem substantial to him, they are not. They come and go at will and although he has no idea who they are, they are familiar to him in every detail. In their absence he tells himself he has imagined them: in their presence he accepts them wholeheartedly.

From this strange, disturbing beginning comes a story of guilt and remorse, rich with a tantalising, elusive resonance that haunts the reader, much as the children haunt the old man. Dan Jacobson sets his fable in Ashkenaz, a country dominated by God-fearers. In this land there is a group of people who are feared and abused as much as they are despised and scorned. They are known as crossbones, pig-eaters or grave-robbers, but they call themselves Christers.

When old Kobus was a young man he had lived as an apprentice in the big town and made friends with Malachi, the student son of a rich landowner. This Malachi had gone mad and the superstitious townspeople decided that he had been bewitched by Sannie, a young Christer maidservant who had worked in his lodgings. She was arrested and tried, but before she could be sentenced she killed herself. Riots followed, then the Christer people were rounded up and deported or massacred during a terrible period known as the Ten Turmoils. Kobus returned to his village and tried to forget his part in the whole affair. Now, in extreme old age, he becomes convinced that the children appearing to him are the descendants Sannie never lived to have, come to reproach him.

The point is that Kobus, more than anyone else, knew that Sannie was completely innocent, yet he failed to say so publicly. Now he argues with himself that his evidence would have made no difference, that the girl would still have died, the time of troubles would still have come. But he knows that he was wrong, that if he had told the truth it would have made an enormous difference to her, even for the little time she had left. More than that, he discovered 'when it was much too late to matter to anyone other than himself, what it meant to build a life on rot and rubbish, the bones of an innocent child whom he knew to be innocent and made no effort to save'.

Dan Jacobson writes with a kind of passionate simplicity that is both compelling and unsettling. The landscape of this novel is at once recognisable and alien. The names are sometimes familiar, like Amos and Hiram; sometimes nearly familiar, like the Tsigani or Yeshua the Nazerit; sometimes bafflingly incongruous, like Beeches or Bendor. The historical setting is strangely inverted, with the Christers shouldering the burdens we know to have been carried for centuries by Jews. Yet the issue it raises transcends all such deliberate booby-traps, namely the importance of integrity both for the individual and for mankind.

His message is that history is capricious and that morality exists on a plane beyond mere religion; also that if, in time of crisis, one person has the chance to defend innocence and declare the truth then he must do so, for the sake of his own peace and, possibly, even for succeeding generations. If Yeats was right, and 'the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity', all the more reason to be brave. Amid the distant rumbling suggestions of Tamburlaine, Attila and Stalin, the voice of individual conscience is still the loudest. Ignore it, says Dan Jacobson, and you invoke 'shame, guilt and a sense of isolation . . . They have hidden pathways of their own through time; many crevices in which to hide; many means of returning to consciousness; much patience to wait their turn'.