BOOK REVIEW / Petting his dog and eating it: I am the clay - Chaim Potok: Heinemann, pounds 13.99

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
'ONLY the dilettantes try to be universal,' Isaac Bashevis Singer once said. 'A real writer knows that he's connected with a certain people, a certain time, a certain environment, and there he stays.' Chaim Potok has usually been thought of as a near-neighbour, whose people are the Hasidim of Brooklyn and the Bronx. Books such as The Chosen and The Promise describe - with sympathy for both - the clashes between orthodox fathers and wayward sons.

However, reading Potok's own commentaries on these texts it soon becomes clear that he is as interested in ideas as in people. His chosen subject is culture war, what he calls the 'core-to-core cultural confrontation' between Western secular humanism (or modern paganism) and its various sub-cultures (especially Judaism, though not exclusively so). He also mentions, en passant, that his (unpublished) first novel concerned the conflict between Americans and Koreans. It is reasonable to assume that this was based upon his own experiences in Asia, where he was an army chaplain with a front-line medical battalion. As it happens, I Am the Clay is set in Korea. I do not wish to suggest that it is a re-write of that apprentice work, but it may well be a distillation. (According to Potok, the opening 58 pages of The Promise were extracted from 1,100 sheets of typescript).

The typical Potok hero is a locus for these conflicts, as old and new loyalties divide the heart. Kim Sin Gyu, though Korean, is no exception. He is found half-dead in a ditch by an old man and an old woman (they are never named), who are fleeing for their lives from the civil strife (a 'core-to-core cultural confrontation' writ large). They have been driven out of their village by the armies of the North, rather than by cherubim with flaming swords, but there is still something Adam and Eve-ish about the couple. Kim's muddy renaissance also has a strongly biblical flavour - his silk jacket matches Joseph's coat of many colours. Indeed, though he does not know it, Joseph is his role model.

Herein lies Potok's problem. He wants to write a folksy tale about the plight of Korean refugees, in spare prose that mimics their own perceptions, but at the same time aims to produce an allegory with more universal applications. So we have peasants unwittingly quoting Shakespeare or echoing Eliot, in addition to the Old Testament allusions. The allegorical intent is made explicit in the final chapter when Kim tells his story to a US army chaplain who wears mysterious insignia that includes a six-pointed star, and whose face grows sad

and dark 'as though disturbed by a long-forgotten memory'. The memory, of course, is the persecution of the Jews.

Poor Kim is not simply the last of his scholarly dynasty (his village has been burned, his family murdered), nor even just a latter-day Joseph, he is also a survivor of the Holocaust. In short, Potok hasn't actually left his home turf. His Koreans are really Hasidim with upside-down eyes. True, they are occasionally forced to eat dog. But even as they tuck into their shepherd's pie, Potok reminds us that it's Old Shep in the bowl. He wants to pet his dog and eat it too. I've a hunch that the book would have been better if Potok had left the country and its invaders as anonymous as he leaves Kim's saviours.

The Koreanisation is further weakened by a reluctance to fully exploit the exotic landscape. In the space of 20 pages the word 'vast' is sprinkled like monosodium glutamate to enhance the sky (twice), a plain, a cloud and mountains. Later, Potok takes a fancy to 'gelid', using it to describe water, discharge from a wound, and the air. I'm also tempted to use it to summarise my reaction to I Am the Clay.

Yet that would be to ignore the dogged quality of Potok's compassion. For he does manage to convey the particular pain of Kim and his lowly rescuers, in their long struggle for survival, as well as the dilemma the boy must finally face: whether to remain upon the land with his surrogate parents (whom he has grown to love) and subscribe to the beliefs of his ancestors; or whether to adapt to the ways of the Americans, who have brought both mechanised destruction and the medicine that saved his life. He is guided by his grandfather's favourite paradox: 'Only the wisest and stupidest of men never change.' And so in the end Kim manages to be both wise and true to his grandfather - a typical Potokian compromise.