The Clay Urn
by Paul Rabinowitz
Main Street Rag, 2020
$13.95, 91 Pages
Review by David Crews
Anton Chekhov once wrote, “The artist is not meant to be a judge of his characters and what they say, his only job is to be an impartial witness.” For Paul Rabinowitz and his new novella, The Clay Urn (Main Street Rag, 2020) this has never felt more dire. The backdrop for the book is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of the late 1980s, and for someone who served a tour in the Israeli military at the age of twenty-two, one could imagine this book falling victim to its own didacticisms.
In today’s world the inundation of perspective and report and media can be a dangerous circumstance and limit an individual’s ability to find or reach some higher truth — whatever that may be. The overwhelming amount of information and the cacophony of perspective leaves many in an echo chamber that delivers its own kinds of violence and oppression.
For storytelling, the writers I love most embrace ambiguity. They give us the world as it is — with the precision of a documentarian — who instead of delivering points of view allow readers to become their own solo natives, making them agents of witness, ultimately forced to build their own conclusions.
Rabinowitz is a prose writer of the highest caliber. At the heart of it he is a poet, and how he crafts images alongside subtle music in his sentence-making takes me to some of the fiction writers I love most — Toni Morrison, Arundhati Roy. Like Morrison and Roy, Rabinowitz cultivates an omniscient narrative voice that slips in and out of the deep inner worlds of characters with the authenticity of one who has lived many lives, and page after page in The Clay Urn I am amazed at the depth and humanity he is able to uncover and show readers.
Consider this moment from the first pages of the book when the main character, Ilana, imagines the scene of introducing her beloved, Ari, to her grandparents. Keep in mind this scene does not actually happen, but comes to readers in the fleeting beauty of how Ilana imagines how it might happen, how she hopes it might be:
Ilana will smile and rest her head on her grandfather’s shoulder. She’ll pull him close and say, “I love you.” They’ll drink cappuccinos. He’ll ask Ari about future plans, about his army service — where he was, what he did. Her grandmother will listen. She’ll study Ari’s eyes, the timing of his smile.
Ilana and Ari are attempting to forge a love relationship amidst a traumatic and haunting backdrop. In only ninety pages Rabinowitz’s story rolls through many people’s lives, over different periods of time. He captures a young Ari with his father looking for coins and other archaeological relics at historic sites outside Tel Aviv. He follows Ilana as she retreats to New York City to forge a potential artist career. He returns to Ari in tour and infiltration at the West Bank, returns to show readers the haunting terrors of war.
And in all this time Rabinowitz cradles the delicate dance of ambiguity the conflict between two nation states, two peoples, brings about. For every moment of pain or loss on one side, Rabinowitz hints at or even captures the other. And it never feels a duality,, a reparation, or a reckoning. It comes in the delicate longing of one trying to process trauma, what it means to love amidst such pain and hurt. With this in mind the story’s backdrop of a war-torn desert landscape feels stark against the poetic narrative:
The drivers turned off the jeep headlights and shifted into low gear. The last ray of sun pulled back from the ancient, rocky terrain exposing a thin crescent moon that floated high in the darkening sky. The wide tires of the nine jeeps bore down on the dirt path, crawled over rocks and grinded through ditches. They crossed a dry brook and the land flattened.
The story too comes to readers fragmented, as it follows different characters through different points of their lives. While every chapter feels necessary, and builds toward the story’s pathos in the end, these breaks are highly important because they help manage the tension-levels that are aroused amidst such violence and fear.
No more is this felt than in an interlude middle chapter when Ilana heads to New York to follow her passions for art, and while there, finds herself in an intense love affair with another painter. When Rabinowitz uncovers the intimacy between individuals he is at his best. His storytelling, for example, shines when he navigates the struggles between Ari and his mother as they attempt to move past the death of her husband and his father.
One also sees this when Ilana, while in New York, falls for a Nigerian artist named Gabriel. And perhaps, here, is a moment of wanting in The Clay Urn — some intense and deeply romantic love scenes that may leave daring readers wanting them to go on longer. (Perhaps this is the novella’s concision.)
While fiction, the book actually builds toward a real event — when a crowded commuter bus headed to Tel Aviv on July 6, 1989 was seized and driven off a cliff by Abd al-Hadi Ghanim of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (although al-Hadi Ghanim survived the event it is considered one of the region’s first acts of suicide terrorism). The book uses this event to retell Ari and Ilana’s story:
Ari looks on in disbelief. He recognizes him as Naser Abdul Naser. A memory flashes through Ilana’s mind. This is the same boy that watched Eyal push his father to the ground.
Rabinowitz was there that day. He saw that bus. Saw it crash through the guard rail and sail into the ravine below. He descended the rocks, witnessed the carnage of people flown from the bus. He held the dying woman — who would become Ilana — with his hands. The story, like trauma, would rise to the surface years later.
And amidst all this resurfacing, and the processing of traumatic events from his life, Rabinowitz displays such care not to write a story that comes with victims and villains. Rabinowitz is no judge of his characters, nor the place and times in which they find themselves. Instead, he shows events. He uncovers how a world of violence begets more violence. He imagines the deep inner worlds of individuals longing for peace and love, longing to stop the hurt. And, in so doing, he draws few conclusions — but rather expands one’s capacity for empathy.
In her December 7, 1993 Nobel lecture Toni Morrison states, “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.” Even though The Clay Urn exists too in a world filled with violence, oppression, and death — it never leaves the ambiguity that is the human condition — and in so doing it offers space to move a little closer to that great mystery of what it really means to love.