Books: Trees have roots, Jews have legs

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The Independent Culture
In Babylon

by Marcel Moring

Flamingo pounds 16.99

The prize-winning Dutch author Marcel Moring has published only three novels. The first, Mendel, was about family and memory and he has refused to allow it to be translated into English. The second, The Great Longing, was "a road movie" about forgetting and inventing and became an international best-seller. Now reverts to both themes in a family history that reads more like a conspiracy: a conspiracy of the silence in which families shroud their embarrassments, and of legend by which the keys to identity are conveyed from one generation to the next.

Resistant to being pigeonholed as a "Jewish author", Moring remains fascinated by the way in which, there being no possibility of a national history, the family can so swiftly assume maximum dimensions. There being, furthermore, no unity of place - since, before 1948, there was no Jewish nation state - Moring turns the inevitable alternation of pogrom and exile, wandering and temporary settlement, into a series of symbolic rites of passage.

In , his most ambitious book, a dynasty of wandering clockmakers make their way, forever impelled westward as refugees, from the Polish/ Russian borders in 1648 to the southern United States in 1939. Their story is related by a descendant, Nathan Hollander, to his niece Nina. In the style of Scheherazade, it is a tale told to ward off death and evil spirits, for the two "Ns" - as they call one another - are holed up in Uncle Herman's hunting lodge during a snowstorm, with only the light of burning furniture and the warmth supplied by drinking their way through his cellar, to aid survival.

And the book is rich in death, ghosts and jokes. It opens with Uncle Herman, dead from a heart attack underneath a teenage prostitute: "His pale, old man's body, the tanned face with the shock of grey hair and the large, slightly hooked nose evoked the image of a warrior fallen in battle and laid in state here, on this dishevelled altar." Soon his corpse is joined by resurrected others: the erratic Uncle Chaim who put his peregrinations down to the assertion that "there are always Cossacks", thus becoming eligible for the Hollander Top Ten List of Terrible Reasons to Make Drastic Decisions. Like the ever-optimistic Magnus, who took 21 years to wander from Poland to Rotterdam "because he was looking for a wife without a moustache", to Nathan's father Emmanuel "who left Europe because he didn't want to wear a tie", ending up in the midst of atomic bomb trials in the Nevada desert.

As the dynasty transformed themselves from Levis into Hollanders, renouncing a priestly caste for "a bit of ground where you can stick a flag", each was endowed with a given name from the Old Testament. Names - the first gift of Jehovah to His human creation - are always lavish in associations: Sarah's lascivious exploits award her the damning epithet of Lilith; and Zeno, who might have been the new Messiah, depending on whether or not you believe he disqualified himself by converting to Islam under the Ottoman empire, went and uttered the Ineffable Name of God in 1648, and thereafter called himself Shabbetai. Even the severe Socialist Sophie, apparently determined (to her wealthy father's despair) to "make us poor with our own money", has a biblical dimension worthy of Job in her inability to "see how the God of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac was making the world any better".

Their stories are told without chronology, as befits the accounts of relatives who all weigh in with their own time-surfing tales. The cult mystic Zeno has "like most Kabbalists, no conception of time". Einstein is awarded a walk-on role, with homage paid by Uncle Herman opining: "Time has no direction. It's possible that, elsewhere in the universe, there's a planet where entropy doesn't go from minimum to maximum, as it does here, from order to chaos, but the other way round."

The family tradition of clockmaking is as doomed to failure in its persistent attempts to construct and contain time through a variety of ingenious innovations, as is Nathan's compilation of a family tree. A tree whose branches are always more vibrant than its invisible roots, in a biography that "was supposed to be about Uncle Herman but ended up being about the people who weren't there".

opens with Isaac Deutscher's epithet: "Trees have roots. Jews have legs." It jumps all over four centuries of those legs journeying along "the roads" that, as Magnus says, "are all the same and all lead to each other". It is Marcel Moring's achievement that he has rendered this profusion of trails from the Old to the New World so diverse, so divergent and so divinely - or diabolically - funny.