THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM. By Marek Halter. Henry Holt. 722 pp. $19.95.
MAREK HALTER's bulgy historical novel of a single Jewish family is a best seller in Europe and comes to this country with a stamp of approval from the prime minister of Israel, Shimon Peres, who asks in a blurb that the book "be used as a required text in our schools."
Halter, who comes from a long line of Jewish printers, escaped from the Nazis with his family by crawling through the sewers under the Warsaw Ghetto. He is, from all reports, a human rights activist in France of great energy and seriousness. But if he is a novelist, it is of a lesser level than his grave tones would demand. Even as a required textbook The Book of Abraham is overwrought stuff.
Halter begins his multi-generational saga in 70 A.D. during Titus'destruction of Jerusalem. Just as Halter's "ancestor," Abraham flees the ruined city, the author puts the brakes on the narrative and does a little explaining:
"Across nineteen centuries and eighty generations, Abraham the scribe is my ancestor, and his story is my story.
"It was when my mother died, I believe, that I began collecting the elements of that story, probably as a way of making myself feel less alone on this earth.
"It seems to me that I traveled all over the world on the trail of Abraham and his descendants. I drew up lists and classified names, dates and events; wherever my ancestors had lived, I gathered landscapes, colors of stones and skies, smells, faces, music, accents; I recorded adventure stories and legends; I listened to silences -- and spent a great deal of time daydreaming.
"Then I began writing. But in spite of all my file cards and references, there was something lacking, something that I confusedly felt to be essential. I decided to go back to Jerusalem, where everything had begun. This was the winter of 1977. Having nothing specific to look for, I wandered at random for several days, questioning myself once again about the mystery of that city. In the sky, television antennas had replaced the thousands of gold needles that had bristled on the roof of the Temple to prevent birds from alighting on it and soiling it, but there was still a strange feeling of permanence, and even of eternity."
Halter finds, amid all these burnished atmospherics, a Rab Chiam who says he owns a book published by Meir-Ikhiel Halter, the house of our author's great-grandfather. There are numerous such interruptions in which Halter fuels his novel with confessions that no reader is likely to accept as "fiction within fiction," as an "inside narrative" or any such pretensions. The reader is likely to take the book, mainly, as nonfiction.
But Halter is not playing fairly, or wisely, on this score. There is something distincly hollow and insecure about such gestures. It's as if Halter does not trust enough in the power of his fiction. He demands that his real, personal suffering be proof of his value as a storyteller and moralist. He clearly demands that his book be of far greater moment than some of the popular novels it so readily calls to mind -- Roots and The Source.
I COULD NOT help thinking while reading, often impatiently, through The Book of Abraham, that the Talmudic authors had a point when they warned against the writing of fictions. Despite his ambitions and good intentions, Halter's insufficient gifts as a fabulist make his Biblical, historical tale seem swollen and pretentious. As the generations of Abraham move in exile from Alexandria to Carthage to, inexorably, the Warsaw Ghetto, the reader suddenly discovers the proper genre- shelf for The Book of Abraham. It is a potboiler, and like the weakest potboilers, it is filled with personages rather than fully drawn characters. Halter's file-card history of the Jewish people provides the narrative, and a lot of corny dialogue tries to pump a little life into the earnest researches. What a sorry and dull formula it turns out to be: "Abraham's wife Judith lay beside him. When he heard a change in the rhythm of her light breathing, he cleared away what remained of the feelings that the night had left in his heart.
"'Judith,' he said. 'we'll leave Jerusalem today, if it's not already too late.'
"'May God help us!' she replied.
"He got up, feeling weak from hunger, and pushed back the curtain that divided the room in two. His sons Elijah and Gamaliel were asleep; he thanked God, blessed be His name, for giving children that armor of innocence."
The book is filled with such passages -- wooden, portentous, almost wholly dependent on the natural sympathies the reader brings to the history of the various Jewish exiles.
My guess is thator all its crippling faults, The Book of Abraham will have some appeal. Perhaps it will sell as well here as it has in Europe. It is, after all, filled with those little nuggets of history and ritual that prove irresistible to readers of Stone, Haley and Michener. For example, we learn (if we don't know it already), that 70 Jewish scholars called the Septuaginta worked inside of tiny two-man cells on the island of Pharos to create 35 absolutely identical Greek versions of the Hebrew Bible.
But even the most grateful reader of such painless history lessons is bound to feel frustrated with Halter's wooden writing. Michener and Wallace, at the very least, know how to make their pots boil. They can tell a story. Halter seems overburdened by his own ambitions and obsessions and is neither here nor there; he fails both as a high-brow and a middle-brow. By the time the reader arrives at Halter's account of the Warsaw Ghetto -- which is moving and authentic even in the novelistic sense -- he is just plain worn out.
As for Shimon Peres' desire that The Book of Abraham become a textbook, the Prime Minister should not be afraid of the real thing: real history, real novels, even real Old Testament. They are better education, and even more fun.