the humble divine

The Magic BarrelThe Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I count myself among the blessed for I have visited New York City. I stayed in a YMCA building and shared a bunk with a petite, taciturn Spanish girl whose cropped pale hair and brown skin put a spell on me that mixed itself into the city’s spell of joy and sorrow, the spell that made me want to sing and burst into tears because the soul I had never believed in knew it had come home. So inside and behind and underneath Malamud’s stories I feel my New York, even when they travel.

And inside and behind and underneath all of these stories is also the Holocaust. While this is occasionally called upon to invoke solidarity, its spectre only brings pain. In ‘The Loan’ a baker is begged by her husband to let him help a friend ‘or what is money for?’. Forced by poverty to constantly check his spending, she breaks down and repeats her own litany of suffering as a refugee: it divides rather than fostering fellowship. Malamud is an author who plays those shimmeringly vivid adverbs and images like aces at just the right moment and here he gives us burnt loaves: ‘blackened bricks – charred corpses’. A waste without redemption.

The baker is not the only woman whose situation Malamud paints with compassion. He draws attention to men who treat women as chattel, who scapegoat them, objectify them, ignore their advice. Though none of the tales have women protagonists, almost all of them have women as agents: resisting, speaking, controlling their own stories, and often directing mens’ fates.

I become less and less sure what ‘magical realism’ is meant to capture. Malamud’s stories deal with pinched urban lives, struggles to make ends more-or-less meet, or carefully planned respites disrupted by unexpected demands on hard-earned, limited savings; they are grounded in the mundane material, a banality that characters try to escape from into writing, study, art, fantasised romance. The escape never succeeds as planned, but sometimes there is an intrusion of unreality, an escape unlooked for, a modest little god apologetically climbing down from the machinery, bringing a cobbled together miracle.

In my favourite story, ‘The Angel Levine’, the divine literally enters to intervene in the life of a man whose misfortunes are piled high on him. Surprised by the presence of a black man in his flat, he is further astonished to find that he is a Jew, and incredulous that he is the angel he prayed for. Unable to believe, he dismisses him. The protagonist must confront his own racism, venturing twice into Harlem as instructed, seeing Levine carousing, drunk, yet beloved of god and holy. When asked why god sent a black angel to him, Levine only says ‘it was my turn to go’. His miracle is finally effortless – it is not he who must work for it, but the doubter, the reader, and Malamud.

I interpret these stories as critiques of prejudice subtley inflected by complex histories of loss, upheaval and privation, meetings where commonalities and divisions are hidden or misunderstood. The icing on this wholesome cake is the euphoric, mystical spirituality that occasionally surges up from wounded, jaded, rational hearts, and makes folk run wild in the street after the ghost of a dream.

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