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Fiction reviews


Mordecai Richler - Solomon Gursky Was Here

23 July 1989

Solomon Gursky Was Here
Mordecai Richler
Chatto & Windus

Published in The Age

Mordecai Richler is the Great Novelist of my adolescent imagination: a lugubrious wit, smoker, drinker, and Jew; a conventional but perfect stylist. Here he has assembled a century-long plot which embraces the dark and sweeping themes of poverty, greed, death, marriage and like catastrophes. He is unarguably a Big Picture man.

Wrestling this novel to the ground takes about a week out of your life. (It took five years out of Richler's.) You need to concentrate consistently, just to assimilate its numerous characters, its leap-frogging chronology, and the many lines which come at you out of the sunset.

It's about the Gursky family - Jewish emigres to Canada's frozen wastes in the middle of last century - whose male progenitor, Ephraim, is regarded as a holy man by the Eskimos. His protege and grandson, Solomon, also does well in the north: he seduces unseduceable women (a straight-laced Christian frump who bashes the servants, for instance; and the glorious Clara Teitelbaum, daughter of the most respected Jewish family in town), has astonishing poker wins, founds a liquor empire during Prohibition, learns how to subvert politicians, and is thus able to forget about abiding by their laws for the rest of his life. After Solomon's premature death in 1934, the empire passes to his two brothers (one avaricious, the other ineffective) and their mostly revolting offspring.

The lives of the Gurskys and their associates are, however, affected by strange occurrences right down to the 1980s: an anonymous party buys a strategic interest in the company's shares; the odd good apple is looked after by a surprise benefactor; Moses Berger, a researcher of information on Solomon, is steered in gradually more fruitful directions. Clearly an Invisible Hand is at work. Did Solomon after all survive his 1934 air crash, and is he - even in his seventies and eighties - manipulating the fortunes of the lesser mortals he left behind? If so, which of the book's dark horses is his contemporary persona? Or is he an intangible, spiritual being? Or reincarnated? Or even the Messiah himself? All these and more are signalled as possibilities. Which means that the book sometimes skates close to the clammy waters of mystical clap-trap: on rare occasions the ice breaks and in it goes.

But for the most part Solomon Gursky Was Here is not merely credible, but rivetting. Also - in this age which has all but entrenched the law-abiding "average" in human behavior - it is deeply life-affirming. For example Solomon and his brother, Bernard, realise that parliaments, and the publicity-seeking buffoons who inhabit them, are there for one reason: to be bought. (This may now be a big business truism - but these men were pioneers.) Solomon does this with good humour and, within the possibilities of the system, ethically. Bernard is a money-grubber and bully. Jealous of his infinitely more talented brother, he eventually engineers Solomon's downfall.

Solomon conditions the story (most of which takes place without him) as a memory, a patriarch, an archetype. Bernard, his inferior on every count, hates him: for the rest of his life Solomon sits like a rock in the black water of his soul.

The story comes together, very slowly, like a massive puzzle. One strand moves backwards in time, another forwards. Its interminable cross-referencing - across centuries, between myths, between metaphor and reality - borders on the bewildering. This is a massive 23-course Chinese meal of a novel, the length and complexity of which is quite eccentric. Had Richler been an Antipodean nobody (as opposed to an esteemed Canadian) it may well have attracted rejection slips and patronising notes from Australian publishers across the board.

The structure of Solomon Gursky Was Here is elaborate but impeccable. (Among other things, Richler moves between scenes with a strange facility - using an equivalent of the cinematic jump cut.) The dialogue is...well, name your superlative: it glows like a diamond against the teeming coalface he has conjured out of the Jewish mind, and the abysmal depths of human personality.

It's easy to see why the author can no longer bear to talk about the book. It's also easy to see where the five years went. I would be pressed to name a subject that Solomon Gursky Was Here does not at least touch on. (For example it sets foot on every continent, and cross-compares nearly every major religious myth since the Chaldeans.)

Most consistently, perhaps, it creates a comprehensive picture of the ways in which the diasporic "Jewboys" (as they are still called in Australian business circles) do - and don't - fit into their host cultures. But this novel's quintessentially Jewish themes - God, commerce and despair - are dealt with without even a nod of respect to the liberal myth of our time: it lacks even a trace of politeness. Possibly only a Jew could have got away with it.

I'd better wind down with a joke. This book's jokes are especially good. They give the impression of having been carefully collected over some time, and inserted in the story where they will do least violence to its spirit. (Like the book's considerable miscellany, they do not always arise out of that spirit.) My own favourite is stuck into a dialogue between Moses Berger (the Gursky researcher) and Lucy (his lover, and Solomon's daughter) - a conversation to which it is quite irrelevant. But it is far from irrelevant to contemporary Melbourne:

Q: What's the difference between a rooster and a lawyer?

A: A rooster clucks defiance.

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