Book review: ‘Minotaur,’ by Benjamin Tammuz

When this tale of obsessive love was originally published in English in 1981, Graham Greene called it “the best novel of the year.” The author, Benjamin Tammuz, lived in Israel, where he was a sculptor, diplomat and literary editor of the Ha’aretz newspaper before his death in 1989. Now, Europa Editions, the intrepid independent publishing house that has brought us terrific literary fiction from Europe and, more recently, high-end mystery and noir, has reprinted Tammuz’s novel.

Greene’s enthusiasm makes sense: A lot about “Minotaur” jibes with his own literary preoccupations. Tammuz’s main character, Alexander Abramov, is a middle-aged Israeli secret agent who feels disconnected from his late parents, his wife and children, and from his work. On his 41st birthday, Abramov, on some kind of clandestine mission, boards a bus outside London. It’s raining, of course, and he is depressed. When two young women step onto the bus and sit down in front of him, Abramov discovers his reason for living at long last. “The girl on the left had hair the color of copper — dark copper with a glint of gold. It was sleek and gathered at the nape of her neck with a black velvet ribbon, tied in a cross-shaped bow. This ribbon, like her hair, radiated a crisp freshness, a pristine freshness to be found in things as yet untouched by a fingering hand.”

Minotaur.

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This vision’s name is Thea, and at the time of this non-encounter, she is a teenager. Over the course of the next decade, though, Abramov keeps her under surveillance and deluges her with hundreds of anonymous letters, many of which might have been composed by Humbert Humbert. “Santa, Santisima Thea,” begins one missive. Another ends with this creepy compliment: “I take your shoe off your foot and kiss your toes. I know them, just as I know every line of your body. . . . I never knew happiness until I found you.”

Thea responds with tentative and increasingly teasing letters. As the years go by, she matches her secret stalker’s obsession with romantic fantasies of her own. Indeed, she becomes so fixated on her amorous pen pal that no flesh-and-blood suitor can quite satisfy her. Eventually, though, she becomes engaged, whereupon her fiance is killed in a car crash. Even her suspicions that her mystery worshipper may be responsible for the accident fail to squelch her ardor.

“Minotaur” is tautly structured as a series of four overlapping stories: The first begins in the present with Abramov’s brief brush with Thea; the last tale takes a retrospective look at Abramov’s puzzling childhood in what was then Palestine. The stories in between zoom in on Thea’s doomed fiance and another poor sap who also becomes consumed by her beauty. As a purely technical achievement, “Minotaur” is pretty impressive, the kind of novel likely to be assigned in “The Structure of the Narrative” courses.

But, to quote a great American writer whose work would never be assigned in such courses, “there is no there there” in “Minotaur.” Abramov is a dismal state of mind rather than a character; Thea is a good head of hair tied up in a neat ribbon; the other guys (what were their names again?) barely register. This is a well-constructed novel that’s hollow at the core. Reading it is like being reduced to admiring the scaffolding for a multi-level parking lot. And, then, there are the questions that plague us more practical readers: Even if Thea is a knockout, why would Abramov sacrifice his life to her? In turn, why would Thea respond with such gusto to anonymous letters from an older man who says he’s been watching her so closely that he even knows her toes? Why not call the cops instead?

In the final scene, Abramov reaches for Thea, the out-of-reach object of desire. During this Gatsby-infatuated season, the image of Gatsby reaching for the green light inevitably comes to mind. Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, however, had Nick Carraway to render Gatsby’s obsessions intelligible to readers; Tammuz’s mandarin omniscient narrator is no help in this regard. Graham Greene may have gotten it, but “Minotaur” was all Greek to me.

Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”

MINOTAUR

By Benjamin Tammuz

Translated from the Hebrew by Kim Parfitt and Mildred Budny

Europa. 185 pp. Paperback, $16

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