Bloodshed and Three Novellas
In her second collection of short fiction, Bloodshed and Three Novellas, Cynthia
Ozick is chiefly occupied with the betrayal of tradition. In all the four stories,
Ozick explores the implications of cultural rootlessness and asserts herself as "a
Jewish writer—n\ore profoundly Jewish than the n^ore celebrated nannes like
Saul Bellow and Philip Roth" [Strandberg 90). She clearly states in her essay,
"Towards a New Yiddish" that the "annihilation of idiosyncrasy assures the annihilation of culture" (168). In each story of the collection Ozick meditates deeply on tradition, on the betrayal of Jewish identity and depicts the negative consequences of repudiating traditional values. All the protagonists realise the significance of accepting their Jewishness to ensure peace, wholesomeness and wellbeing.
The first story of the collection "A Mercenary" is concerned with the problems
Jews face in sustaining their Jewish identity after the Holocaust. Through the story Ozick also makes plain that a fabricated identity neither liberates nor ennobles and an impersonator doesn't belong anywhere. The protagonist of the story, Stanislav Lushinski, a "Pole and a diplomat," like Isaac Kornfeld (a pagan and a rabbi) is a man of ambivalent identity (15). Polish Jew by birth, Lushinski is a chameleon, the eminently adaptable modern man, who exchanges the savagery of Poland for the paganism of Africa: its "thick night-blossom excited him," for in
Poland he lived in a "flag-stoned Warsaw garden" (15). The tale begins with an 106 epigraph from Joseph Goebbels: "Today we are all expressionists—men who want to make the world outside themselves take the form of their lives within themselves" (5). Ozick has used the epigraph as a perfect definition of idolatry.
Lawrence S. Friedman opines that "Goebbels's words are characteristically sinister in their historical context, implying that the Holocaust—that definitive
'creation' of Nazi 'expressionism'—reflected the twisted life of its perpetrators"
(94). The tale applies the epigraph to "the main characters, representatives of the civilization of three disparate continents. The two main characters have in some sense exchanged birthrights: Lushinski, a native of Poland, by becoming the United Nations representative of assistant, by submerging his African past under the European veneer acquired at
Oxford. third character, Louisa—Lushinski's mistress in New York—is Aa small black African country; Morris his
American, and hence does not require or comprehend a multiple identity; but she like others, follows Goebbels's expressionist standard in so far as she prefers her innocent inner picture of the world to the reality defined by actual history"(Strandberg 93). Lushinski is the mercenary of the title, an eloquent
'Paid Mouthpiece' and the prime-minister's gaudy pet, a well-paid slave kept for pleasure. A Polish Jew, he has long represented a small unnamed black African country at the United Nations. His warm attachment to other cultures, African and American, are stimulated by the stark fear of owning his Jewish identity.
Lushinski tells everyone that he had killed a man while he was in Poland. He fabricates this story to hide from the fear of his gruesome past. However, his mistress and his UN assistant have little difficulty penetrating the ironic mask of the intellectual and they manage to expose the vulnerable Jew, the potential victim Lushinski tries to hide beneath his new identity. 107
Ozick satirizes the Jews who move away from their culture and consequently become unacceptable to God. They are destined to endure vengeance in desolation. Lushinski's escape to Africa, Ackerman states, recalls
Jonah's flight from God's presence to "Tarshish, a land which connotes luxury, desire, delight 'a distant paradise' where God is unknown" (qtd. in Kauvar
76). Friedman observes that Stanislav escapes the Holocaust and "exchanged his cold and gray European homeland for hot and bright Africa, his native language for tribal dialect and diplomat's English, his Judaism for cosmopolitanism" (95).
Lushinski is most at home in New York, "the quintessential melting pot where identities are confused, altered and reinvented, Lushinski feels that he has reached home at last" (94). However, as the story progresses he realises that he is essentially homeless whether in New York, travelling incessantly around
America; or returning sporadically to Africa on official visits.
The story narrates the parallel events of Lushinski's life with his assistant's, who has acquired an Oxford degree in Political Science and shares with the diplomat in his office, "this atmosphere almost of equal" (18). Morris
Ngambe, a native of the land Lushinski has adopted, compares his boyhood to the diplomat's. His ecstatic boyhood was filled with games. In the parallel events of their lives Ozick establishes them "as secret sharers to unmask the mystery about the man the diplomat claims to have killed—the core of Lushinski's existence" (Kauvar 76). Morris's friend, a boy raised in a missionary school and a dedicated Christian, accuses his mother of scandal: instead of the Trinity, she worships paganism. Since the villagers could not tolerate her primitivism so they murdered her. In her religion the goddess Tanake declares that she herself had 108 become divine through having been cooked in her own milk. As his mother has just given birth to Morris, she pleads to her husband for similar immortality.
Consequently, she is cooked in her own milk and ceremonially eaten. The ritual cannibalism of Morris's mother, a worshipper of "plural Gods" and a believer in animism, transforms her into the Goddess Tanake-Tuka, a Goddess "who could perform miracles" (18). Ozick is critical of any indulgence in rituals involving magic and paganism. However, Morris, partakes of the "principal sacrament, the nose, 'emanator-of-wind-of-birth,' and 'prays to his mother's picture'—to an 'image Sinai forbids'" (76). Here Ozick's abiding interest in cannibalism takes a new turn as she describes Tanake-Tuka's death: "Since she has recently given birth (Morris was twenty years older than his youngest brother), she bled both blood and milk, and died howling, smeared in pink. But because in her religion the goddess Tanake declares before five hundred lords that she herself became divine through having been cooked in her own milk, Morris's mother, with her last cry, pleaded for siniilar immortality" (19). Sanford Pinsker notes that "The
Torah prohibits boiling the kid in its mother's milk; rabbinic commentary extended the laws ofkashruth to include any mixing of dairy and meat products"
(69). Ozick has commented extensively on the use of rituals bordering on brutality in the Dark Continent. Ozick clearly shares her discontent with pagan rituals. However, after the sacrifice of his mother, Morris feels that he "became lucky ever after that" (19). Contrarily, his luck runs out in New York, where he is labelled dull and boring.
Lushinski narrates the reason for his coming to Africa in a television interview. Believing that his life is a fairy tale of his own telling, Lushinski begins 109 the tale thus, "Once upon a time, long ago in a snowy region of the world called
Poland, there lived a man and his wife in the city of Warsaw" (25). They were blessed with a son Stanislav but there was one defect in him that grieved his parents—he looked like a gypsy: "his hair was black with a slippery will of its own, like a gypsy his eyes were brilliant but disappointingly black like gypsy eyes and even the skin of his clever small hands had a dusky glow, like gypsy skin"
(26). His servants called him 'Ziggi' short for Zigeuner, the German word for gypsy. But his mother would not allow German to be uttered in the house because to her it was the language of the "barbarian invaders, enemy of all good
Polish people" (26). She laments the manner the Germans attacked their country with tanks grinding up even the 'most fashionable streets' which had put the 'life of Warsaw palaces' to an end. Therefore, they decided to give the child to a peasant couple so that he could be saved and later the peasants ironically try to give him away to the Germans.
Lushinski talks about the terror of his escape fromthe Nazis through the forests of Poland when he was six. The horror-filled Polish forest resembles the forest encompassing Morris' village, a forest "with all its sucking, whistling, croaking, gnawing, perilously breathing beasts and their fearful eyes luminous with moonlight" (23). The peasants' attempt to give Lushinski to the Germans is parallel to the attack on Morris in New York by a 'rust-colored chow.' During his escape the young Lushinski gouged out the eye of the ferocious bull dog, Andor who had "chewed-up genitals and vomit on lower jaws" and then threw him against his master whom the dog killed (28). Ozick describes a "parallel hanging" from Lushinski and Morris' boyhoods—one a brutal torture inflicted by 110 the peasants who had strung Lushinski from a rafter by his wrists, the other an exercise by the village men to stretch the muscles of Morris' neck. Kauvar opines that the two similar incidents drawn as parallel to each other juxtapose the received idea of civilization in Europe against the conventional notion of untamed life in Africa (77). Ozick, deeply sensitive to the 'inexorable forces of history,' has woven various allusions to her tale that reflect the aftermath of the Holocaust and its impact on its victims during and after the War.
The tale of the Lushinski's escape through the forests of Poland, Alvin H.
Rosenfeld notes, is an obvious reference to, Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird. The dark-skinned and dark-eyed narrator of Kosinski's novel looks like a gypsy the way Lushinski did, and both had fair-skinned and blond parents who were forced to leave their children with peasants. Elaine Kauvar elaborates on the inclusion of several episodes from The Painted Bird: Lushinski's revenge on the bulldog
Andor is reminiscent of the scene where Kosinski's narrator is hung from a ceiling in a farmer's house and is left to dangle over the vicious dog, Judas. He denies being Jewish and easily begins to believe in the power of Christian prayer.
Then he is hurled into a manure pit and loses his ability to speak. His "dreams of himself as a German officer, his learning to take revenge, his transformation into a Stalinist and an atheist, his refusal to acknowledge his parents upon their return—these betray his conscious attempt to become someone else Suffused
with nightmarish brutality and violence. The Painted Bird celebrates the triumph of individual will, not the survival of a people" (Kauvar 78). "A Mercenary," however, begins where Kosinski's tale ends. In chronicling the diplomat's life after young Lushinski escaped from Russia, Ozick concentrates on "the I l l consequences of conduct;" what for her is the true concern of her fiction. (Ozick,
Ozick highhghts the atrocities of the Nazis that the Jews were subjected to during the Holocaust. The terror still persists in their minds and they are not able to lead normal lives. Perhaps this is why her protagonist is lured by other cultures and wishes to be born somewhere else. Lushinski crafts his "public persona on the television shows (the ultimate symbol of ephemeral) on which he delights to appear" (Friedman 96). Lushinski's story elicits laughter and disbelief as mockery and parody not only from the television audience but also from
Morris Ngambe. Joking about his past becomes a strategy for effacing it: "He had made himself over, and now he was making himself up" (28). However Louisa, his German Mistress, does not doubt her lover's veracity. She has often shaken him out of nightmares and comforted him with the reminder that he was now a "figure the world took notice of (29). On the telephone he addresses her first as pagan Goddess Tanake-Tuka and then by his name for her, Lulu; she "mothered him and made him eat" (21). She resembles Morris' motherly aunts who gave
Morris the confidence that he one day would make his journey from his small
African village to a larger world and that he, "would one day weigh in the world"
(24). She resembles Morris's transformed mother and her "large, fine nose" recalls the powers Morris attributes to his mother's nose; a "German Countess
Lulu has less strength than the Goddess" and submits to every wish of her lover, though she knows how the word Jew "restored him to fear" (29). Lushinski's relationship with his assistant and his mistress reflects his desire to have been born someone else. 112
Ozick satirizes the people who neglect their culture and therefore, turn ineffectual. Morris Ngambe's mental annexation of another continent, brought about by the departure from Africa and an education at Oxford is a reflection of Lushinski's history. Despite his first hand knowledge of Africa, Morris Ngambe is judged dull and futile by the Secretary of State to whom he says "there is no contradiction between the tribal and the universal" (33). However, this statement conjures up the distinction that Ozick makes in "Towards a New
Yiddish." To declare the tribal and the universal as fundamentally the same,
Ozick avers, "is to annihilate culture" (168). Annihilation, Ozick argues, "Shuns judgement and memory and seizes the moment" (169). Morris Ngambe is an incarnation of paganism and the embodiment of Lushinski's deepest desires.
Ozick brings into focus that the Holocaust instils fear in the minds of the jews and even after years they still bear the aftermath of it. In her interview to
Diane Osen, she points out, "The Holocaust is inescapable and indelible, and inevitably marks, stains—moral nature" (7). To the historical catastrophe,
Lushinski attributes his freedom: "Every survivor is free. Everything that can happen to a human being has already happened inside the survivor. The future can invent nothing worse. What he owns now is recklessness without fear" (37).
However, there is a contradiction in Lushinski's freedom; he tries to forego his
Jewish identity. This kind of freedom, Ozick suggests, leads Lushinski to a life without any foundation and culture. Lushinski is still frightened by the words
'peasant' and 'Jew' and insists on one topic of conversation; death and the record of it. He favours the accretion of data and tells Lulu that "something liturgical" is
"what really happened" (38). In her essay, "Towards a New Yiddish" Ozick 113 explains that the liturgical "is in command of the reciprocal moral imagination"
(166). However, Lushinski believes that "there are no holy men of stories ... only holy men of data" (42). These men, Lushinski believes, write books like Raul
Hilberg's The Destruction of theJews and Elie Wiesel's Night, the sources and documents the diplomat reads. He counters Lulu's inability to separate source and stories by stating, "Imagination is romance. Romance blurs" (38). But the title to Hilberg's book irritates Lulu and she protests, "It is not as if the whole world was wiped out it was not mankind, after all, it was only one population"
(38-9). Lulu's opinion is reflected in Ozick's essay, "Cultural Impersonation," wherein she interprets Mathew Arnold's desire to be civilised as the wish to belong, "to the locally prevailing mythos—to the West as Christendom," to the 'mainstream' from which Arnold and Lulu exclude Jews (134). This exclusion is what makes Lushinski the man he has become.
Ozick focuses on the means by which the Jews escape from their identities. Lushinski hates 'being part of the Jews.' The very mention of the word
Jew drives him to bathe and this ritual suggests baptism and connects him to
Disraeli, a baptized Jew. Ozick unmasks Lushinski's wish to have become a native in the forest of the African village rather than in the woods of Europe. He declares himself an African and tells Lulu, "I don't want Europe" (41). Ozick defines the way Lushinski fabricates an identity. The subject of impersonation has been Ozick's chief concern in her works: In "Towards a New Yiddish" she describes "Norman Mailer's flight from a Brooklyn shtetl as his transformation into Esau; in 'Cultural Impersonation' she yokes Mark Harris's The Coy to John
Updike's Bech, proclaims the two books an example of cultural impersonation 114 and even titles her review 'Esau as Jacob'" (Ozick qtd. in Kauvar 79). The biblical tale, itself a history, "concerns deceit and immorality and traces the destinies of two personalities, the origin of two people" (79). Ozick makes the continent of Europe and Africa those nations, two different people. Morris whose "last name is reminiscent of Niambe, the African God of the sky," calls New York'a wilderness, a jungle' and Europe the 'Dark Continent,' a 'hellish and horrible' place from which "you fled ... you ran like prey into shadows" (Kauvar 80). Both
Morris and Lushinski, shadowed respectively by African colonialism and European Holocaust, cannot escape their past.
Having run from his tormentors through the dark and perilous forests of Poland, Lushinski dreads his identity. His terror impels him to flee and to regard
Europe as the twentieth century's heart of darkness. In the story, Ozick "locates the heart of darkness in Europe and makes its counterpart the unrestrained paganism of Africa, reversing the thesis of Through the Dark Continent' (80).
Henry Stanley contrasts "Africa, a continent on which pagans devoted to idolatry lived, with the 'boundless treasures' of European life; Ozick exposes the derivations of those 'treasures' and presents postwar Europe and its unfathomable savagery as the extreme form of paganism" (qtd. in Kauvar 80).
Lushinski's fascination with Africa is a kind of'sojourn in Edom,' a period in wilderness where he thought he could escape his identity.
Lushinski becomes a "dervish of travel" and fills his suitcase with "several complete sets of false papers ... passports of various identities... and a number of diplomas in different languages" (36). Kauvar observes that "Lushinski's suitcase conjures up Mr. Hencke's suitcase" (81). They both are travellers who 115 want to efface and travel beyond their past. Ozick, in the preface to Bloodshed, suggests the significance of both suitcases: "Stories cannot carry suitcases with elucidation" (8). Mr. Hencke's and Lushinski's suitcases are their own elucidations. Exorcised of his former self, he is thus, an impersonator who belongs nowhere. Dressed in the uniform of a German soldier, he journeys to
Rhineland where he is welcomed. This reveals his desire for acceptance at any cost and in any place. Even Morris in New York "brooded over impersonation" and knows himself to be "self duped, an impersonator" (46). His identity crisis makes him think of himself as "a self duped mimic of Western manners, a black version of'that lout Tarzan' whose crude chatter parodies African dialect"