Wednesday's Book: A Blessing on the Moon by Joseph Skibell (Abacus, pounds 14.99)

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Joseph Chaim Skibelski is a troubled man. For one thing, he ought to be dead. But despite having been shot by Nazis and tossed into a mass grave along with the other Jews from his village in war-torn Poland, he is, to his great consternation, still in this world. To make matters worse, the local rabbi has turned into a crow, and someone has stolen the moon. With a hole in his head that lets the wind howl through, and a propensity to bleed under stress, the spectral Chaim has problems aplenty. Most important of all: how is he to reach the world to come?

In A Blessing on the Moon, Joseph Skibell imagines an afterlife journey that takes his hero Chaim (a character modelled on his great-grandfather, who died in the camps along with 17 other members of the author's family) through a series of bizarre experiences and encounters. He befriends a tubercular Polish peasant girl whose family have moved into his house; finds himself saddled with the severed talking head of the German soldier who shot him ("I need to be forgiven. Herr Jude. Forgive me. Won't you?"); sups with the rest of his deceased family at a sumptuous hotel; and allows a Hasidic Tweedledee and Tweedledum to rope him into a mad scheme to recover the moon.

Because Skibell's tightly-controlled prose never slips or sags, never succumbs to any easy pathos, its fantastical happenings never read as anything less than believable. At the same time, its allegorical universe is not so far removed from matters of record that it is unable to incorporate features of Holocaust history.

So when the hotel bellman tells the expectant Chaim: "Dinner is in the main ballroom. And you'll be taking the steam afterwards?", no one can mistake the reference.

More than any real event, A Blessing on the Moon calls to mind the Book of Job - that perpetually relevant touchstone of Jewish self-understanding. Like Job, Chaim has had his family torn from him without apparent reason and, like Job, his body is rotting and fetid. Indeed, all that happens is as if sent to test his endurance. At times, Chaim even sounds like Job. Railing against the God whose faith he keeps in spite of everything, he shouts to the heavens: "If, as a child, I had been taken aside and told of the poisoned secrets my future held for me in its coils, I would have fallen into a fever and died immediately."

Skibell stops short of drawing Job-like moral lessons from the darkest moment of the 20th century. He has no interest in pinning down the Holocaust to a set of meanings, received or otherwise. How could that appease the unquiet souls of millions?

Instead, the Holocaust is left hanging over the atmosphere of the book like a poisoned vapour, contaminating every image. A sunset, "spreading like a purple bruise", disrupts our aesthetic expectations. An embrace with a long-lost love brings the feel of breath "soft, warm and slightly malodorous". The burden of the Holocaust's dead weight is ever present. Perhaps that is how it should be.

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