Book Review: Gilad Atzmon - A Guide To The Perplexed

Paperback Cover - A Guide To The Perplexed
  A Guide To The Perplexed

Gilad Atzmon

A Guide To The Perplexed
Transl: Philip Simpson
English language edition, 2002, Serpent's Tail
First published by Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2001

Date Reviewed:

See also profile of Gilad Atzmon


A Guide To The (Very) Perplexed

When a musician of world ranking has a novel published, one's curiosity is always aroused. When that musician is the controversial musical colossus Gilad Atzmon, a reading becomes virtually compulsory. Questions that inevitably arise in relation to Gilad Atzmon are, what makes this latter day Coltrane such an angry, even bitter, man? What is it that seems to compel him to provoke and so upset and even offend so many people, so many of his own people? What's behind all that seeming self-hate and the shock tactics? What drives this searing fury that is so evident in his music, that drives his music? The answers to these and many other questions have of course always been there for any perceptive, probing mind. However, Atzmon's first novel answers them in a most accessible form, and most eloquently and elegantly.

A biting, seething satire, Gilad Atzmon's "A Guide To The Perplexed" is at once (often darkly) hilarious and deeply troubling, even frightening. Atzmon writes with incredible style and beautiful, even extravagant use of language, something that is often sadly severely lacking in much contemporary writing. More importantly still, his writing is bursting at the seams with ideas and substance, which are all too often even more severely lacking in contemporary writing. "A Guide To The Perplexed" is rip-roaringly if darkly farcical, often given to serious urine extraction, in particular in respect of that obscene abomination of the last two decades or so, political correctness, as well as all the other "post-modern" onanisms that have been inflicted upon us. While deeply subversive, it never falls into the trap of taking itself too seriously, and neither does the author himself.

The vehicle for Gilad Atzmon's witty satirical exploration takes the form of the autobiography of the father of the new intellectual discipline of peepology or voyerology, Gunther Wuenker (ue = "umlaut" u), published by the German Institute for the Documentation of Zion in 2052, forty years after the demise of the state of Israel. Wuenker, born in Israel around 1960, grows up in a suburb of Tel Aviv. In rebellion against his extreme germanophile grandfather, young Gunther reaches adolescence a Zionist steeped in thanatos, dreaming of a glorious, heroic death in the service of his country. The rise and rise of the raging hormones syndrome, further stirred by his eagerly anticipated first real sexual encounter, and the impeaching reality of military service soon shift the focus of Gunther's attention to eros and the decided will to survive and to live. In spite of himself then and the actual circumstances, Gunther becomes a highly accidental war hero. Discharged from the army, his furiously raging hormones more than any particular political conviction lead him into the arms of the peace movement and the legs of its female followers. He turns into a convinced anti-Zionist and moreover, almost as rampant a europhile and indeed germanophile as his grandfather before him. Perceiving impending doom, he leaves Israel for the greener (as he perceives them) cultural, intellectual and fornicatory pastures of Europe and in particular Germany. He soon finds academic fame and fortune through his newly founded discipline of peepology, inspired by his own voyeuristic pursuits and his wider exile's position as a voyeur. The path of true lust is also running smoothly for Gunther, finding its high point in his albeit ultimately doomed relationship with what to him is the personification of the perfect woman - she never nags, talks incessantly, makes embarrassing remarks, or makes any distracting demands of any kind, she's always available, in short, a real doll. Eventually, Gunther finds his longed-for goal of as near perfect assimilation as possible through fatherhood and marriage to the Aryan German mother of his son, only to become disillusioned and disenchanted with both his academic career, indeed his intellectual creation, peepology, and his personal relationships.

The pace is as unrelenting and the storytelling as compelling as Atzmon's music, and his urine extracting is merciless, at once genuinely funny and witty and totally devastating. Gilad Atzmon's wit takes no prisoners. If you're looking for comfort, you're looking in the wrong place here. Hope let alone redemption have no place here, either, except perhaps ultimately in the very existence of this novel per se.

"A Guide To The Perplexed", on the face of it, is a scathing condemnation, an indictment of Israeli policy in respect of the Palestinian people. Atzmon takes the gravest offence at the treatment of the Palestinians at the hands of his fellow Israelis, at the hands of Jews, and is deeply shocked and offended to the core of his very being that the Jewish people, a people who have suffered so gravely over several millennia at the hands of others, a people who have been striving and fighting for their rights for so long, should now inflict so much suffering on the other, should now deny the other those very rights and aspirations in their turn. The very idea is monstrous and horrifying to Atzmon - as, indeed, it is to many dissident Jews who do not define their Jewishness through blind endorsement of the Israeli state and Israeli policy -, and it is this that makes him recoil at his own Jewishness even. But don't assume for one moment that this seeming self-hate makes Atzmon some sort of "Jew-hating" monster. On the contrary, it is evident to anybody prepared to take off his blinkers and look around that this man actually also fears deeply, and therefore cares deeply, even if perhaps in spite of himself, for his people and their future. Atzmon is by no means unique in perceiving impending doom in the situation pertaining to the state of Israel and the Palestinian people. He is just a little more extreme in his reaction than most and feels compelled to use the kind of shock tactics for which he has acquired some notoriety, in a desperate effort to awaken everybody to the impending catastrophe, the makings of which are far more advanced than might be comfortable to admit. "A Guide To The Perplexed" is a desperate alarm call, very much a last-minute alarm.

Not just in relationship to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, either. Beyond the narrow confines of that particular scenario, Gilad Atzmon's "A Guide To The Perplexed", intentional or not, also serves well as a greater metaphor for the world at large and the politico-economic domination by the western world and the United States in particular, the latter having assumed the role of a, albeit very second-rate, latter-day Rome that threatens, nay dooms us all. When Atzmon attacks the Jewish concept of chosenness, he even more attacks the far greater, far more arrogant, western world assumption of chosenness. In "A Guide To The Perplexed", the state of Israel can just as well serve as a metaphor for the western world and the US and the western socioeconomic and political system, a system where mammon is God and mammon alone, where only the short term economic interests of the "Empire" count and great lip service is paid to freedom, choice, and equality while in reality processes such as "globalisation"- speak-Americanisation serve only to exploit and drain the rest of the world in order to sustain the unsustainable, namely the "capitalism-gone-mad" western economic model, a little longer. A system where everything is packaged, shrink-wrapped and productised, including people and every last aspect of their lives and their very being. A system where human and humane values and ideas are sprouted as trendy catch-phrases but are otherwise rapidly being flushed down the drain, a system that is ethically and morally bankrupt. A system, a world, that is fast being stripped of its civil liberties and every little gain towards enlightenment it has made since the Renaissance and that is lunging head first back into its dark ages and that in due course and without any doubt will even drop the pretense of "democracy" it presently so strenuously seeks to uphold.

Atzmon's "A Guide To The Perplexed" ultimately is a searing indictment of western-centricity, even of assimilation itself, of the western political and socioeconomic system and the western world view. Sadly, being far more cynical myself and taking a much dimmer view of human nature, I fear that Gilad Atzmon's alarm call, at least in respect of the wider western world, will follow the course of Onan's seed.

It's perhaps as well at this point to observe that "A Guide To The Perplexed" is not entirely devoid of its share of profanity and sexually explicit references but, contrary to what the hype might lead one to believe, none of this is ever gratuitous and titillates no-one except perhaps juvenile Gunthers. This circumstance no doubt will be cause for great disappointment among many contemporary potential readers.

However, if you are looking for original writing and a veritable extravaganza of ideas, substance, wit, language and style, combined with irreverent and hilarious humour in a nuclear furnace-like searing satire, then you need look no further than Gilad Atzmon's "A Guide To The Perplexed". I have found it the most thought-provoking, stimulating and original writing since the late Shiva Naipaul. Yes, "A Guide To The Perplexed", like its author, is provocative, no doubt, and at a superficial glance it often will offend. But it is so in order to be thought-provoking.

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