I Am the Clay
Chaim Potok has used fiction to explore the tensions between Orthodox Jewish faith and modern secular thought, as reflected in the struggle of a gifted individual to reconcile the quest for truth with the claims of the community. All of Potok’s previous novels have followed this pattern, even THE BOOK OF LIGHTS, which centers on a Jewish chaplain stationed in Korea in the 1950’s (as was Potok himself).
With I AM THE CLAY, Potok returns to Korea, but this book is something different: a Potok novel with no Jewish themes. In fact, it closer to the fable or folktale than to the novel as traditionally conceived. An old Korean man and his wife, simple peasants, are fleeing the advance of North Korean troops and their Chinese allies. In a ditch by the road they see a young boy, wounded and near death. Against the old man’s protests, the woman takes the boy with them.
The experiences of this trio amid the disorder and brutality of war are rooted in the particularities of a time and a place and a distinctive culture, yet their story has the universality of myths and dreams. The besetting sin of novelists-turned-fabulists is sentimentality (see the late works of Hemingway and Faulkner for examples). Potok’s characters must attend to bodily functions and malfunctions—matters which the fabulist typically ignores. Sentimentality is kept at bay, so that the redemptive message of this hypnotically readable tale is hard-won and persuasive.