All This Sleuthing
Reviewed by Ori Livneh
In his famous Meridian speech, Paul Celan spoke of art as forming the subject of a conversation (Unterhaltung, alternatively amusement, entertainment, or diversion) “that, we feel, could be endlessly prolonged” were it not always being interrupted. True to form, Robert Majzel’s latest book, Apikoros Sleuth, is full of interruption: something or someone is always interjecting and “spoiling the fun.” At the outset of the book, the unnamed narrator is comfortably uncomfortable in his shabby, room-and-a-half apartment and his playfully dejected conversations with himself, when a newspaper obituary interrupts the sauntering 12-point narrative with large, bold uppercase, announcing the death of an old associate: one Antonio Pigafetta, a “once-upon-a-time revolutionary” turned dentist.
This is a familiar setup for detective fiction, which traditionally begins with the vulgar interruption of a murder upon a complacent (shall we say) “Unterhaltung.” This “interruption” is covert, but it leaves traces, and the task of the sleuth is to “re-trace” the intruder. The more complex the interruption, the more numerous are the crime scenes and phantom traces, and the fewer are the certainties. So far, so good. But what happens when the narrative itself plays a cat-and-mouse game with the reader, anticipating every move, yielding only so far and then disappearing into the text? What happens when the reader is no longer sure whether he or she is “pursuing a story. Or fleeing from it. Crablike and bleeding?”
Where are the crime scenes of Apikoros Sleuth? Is it the room and a half apartment, where a body and a head are found, irreconcilably apart? Yes. And yet. Is it the text itself, which is always being interrupted and interpreted in the margins? Yes. And yet. Is it western philosophy, that endlessly prolonged monologue? Certainly the clever sleuth would do well to scrutinize it for traces of blood. And yet. Language? Is it our trust in language and narrative that is rudely interrupted? The narrative itself, which deftly eludes a line or a centre? Yes, and yes. And yet.
You might wonder what sort of sleuth can be expected to interpret so many interruptions. Certainly not anyone easily exasperated, for the crimes of the book are many. Nor anyone easily ulcerated by a surfeit of play. But anyone who feels comfortable walking in “the long hermeneutical boots of sleuthing” (to borrow one of Majzels’s hilariously elegant phrases), or in other words, anyone willing to “practice exegesis on the street” (to borrow another), will find a surface very receptive to long and meandering walks and an author rich in conversation for company. The cautious, who forever postpone interpretation, are not welcome; nor are the overconfident, who have already read all the books. Interruptions create their own time, which is always now.
All this sleuthing would be so very cumbersome were it not sustained by stunning typographical layouts and Majzel’s acerbic, hyperactive wit. The latter is often of the laugh-out-loud variety—take, for example, this description of one Mr. Booger Rooney: “The dictionary was the vessel of his rise to power. He was loquacious and sesquipedalian, he was lexiphanic and Gongoresque; I mean he apostrophized a revolutionary soteriology in Ciceronian tones. Must I go on like a peddler? Alright, he was a big gabber.”
The graphical layout of each page mimics the Talmud, with two columns of interpretation cloistering a seed of text, like a pistachio, and margins that are further populated with small remarks and intertextual references. A sudden flash of colour upsets the monotony of black on white type. When a word or a phrase from the Hebrew interpolates the English text, it is done in such a way that calls attention to the potent graphical dimension of the Hebrew alphabet. The Hebrew becomes viral: as it infects the page, it interrogates the text, calls into question its authority.
Readers without an inkling of Hebrew, rabbinical Judaism, or critical theory are not barred entry to the book. The Talmudic layout and division of the text into numbered folios bring to mind the “Daf Yomi,” a strategy of reading and interpreting one daf (folio) of the Talmud each yom (day), which takes seven and a half years to complete. The figure of the Apikoros Sleuth, suggested by the title, represents the book as much as it does the reader it invites. “Apikoros” is a rabbinical word that refers to those unlearned or unorthodox in their relationship with the Talmud, those “outside.” An Apikoros sleuth, then, might be one who strategically re-traces references, burrowing through them selectively, and so (dare I say it) interrupts the book with an interpretation.
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MLA: Livneh, Ori. All This Sleuthing. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #190 (Autumn 2006), South Asian Diaspora. (pg. 102 - 104)
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