Study Guide

Signs and Wonders

by Melvin Jules Bukiet

Signs and Wonders Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Melvin Jules Bukiet teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College. He received the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for the best Jewish- American Fiction of 1992 for Stories of an Imaginary Childhood (1992). He has also written After (1996) and While the Messiah Tarries (1995), and his stories have appeared in such publications as Antaeus and The Paris Review.

In the brief prologue to Signs and Wonders, Bukiet considers the concept of the end of the millennium. He examines the arbitrariness of the calendar that measures the centuries and notes how so many people, from the hopeful to the waggish, are using the concept of the millennium to define otherwise ordinary human events. He even includes a list of ten things that the reader can expect to have happen during the coming millennium, including the death of computer mogul Bill Gates and war in the Middle East. With that introduction, he begins a tale in which even the most cynical characters await a dramatic close to the end of the millennium.

Signs and Wonders is definitely a man’s book, in which the few women who appear are assigned the sexist roles of either Madonna or whore (or both). Perhaps Bukiet limited his main characters to men so that he could focus on the subjects of faith and loyalty without the added complications of male/female relationships. The result, however, is a book that at best is one- sided and, at worst, denies women any importance in the mysterious events that are taking place. Women fulfill very limited, specific roles and do nothing of importance to the plot. That said, the novel does present an interesting portrait of human beings’ need to find hope and eagerness to believe in old-fashioned miracles in a modern, corrupt age. The novel also shows how corrupt and cynical the results can be. The criminals follow Ben Alef against their own better judgments when they could instead be free to escape; in a sense, they have never left the confines of their cell and the fate that brought them together.

The setting of the opening scene, definitely an all-male environment, is a cell on the prison shipFarnhagen, anchored off the north German coast. Newcomer Snakes Hammurabi confronts his eleven fellow inmates as they size him up, and he negotiates his position in their hierarchy. He relates the criminal trespass that has brought him to the Farnhagen—using a church altar as a urinal. Although he has been exposed to several bizarre religious sects by his father, a spiritual seeker whose diplomatic job took his family across the globe, Snakes has no religious beliefs of his own. He has made a living as the favored son of The Peddler, carrying out various criminal tasks to support the latter’s varied enterprises, which are conducted from his home base, a private club called the Kastrasse. We learn that Snakes’s parents legally changed his name just before they died in a snake-handling session on a U.S. military base. Snakes learns the crimes of the other inmates, among whom is the former commander of Bergen-Belsen, Dietrich Eisenheim, an aging Nazi who still believes fervently in the führer’s cause. The exception is the mysterious Ben Alef, who never speaks. No one has seen him eat or sleep, either, and no one seems to remember when he arrived among them.

Once the inmates’ crimes and attitudes are delineated, Bukiet disrupts their miserable, forgotten existence with the fury of a storm unlike any seen before on the northern German coast. At first the prisoners are merely neglected, and in their growing hunger, they begin to consider cannibalism. The silent Ben Alef is menaced by Anton Barsch, who is serving time for killing a police officer, but Ben Alef produces a hard-boiled egg out of thin air, and it is eaten instead. This is an interesting parallel to the Catholic mass, wherein believers consume the symbolic flesh and blood of Christ, and the egg itself has the connotations of life offered by the Christ figure. That night, the storm intensifies, and the prisoners realize that the Farnhagen is sinking; they hear screams as the lower decks are flooded. Ben Alef suddenly speaks, moaning about showers as the rain washes the grime from his body, and lightning strikes the ship, liberating the prisoners from their cell and striking dead Eisenheim, who had attempted to touch Ben Alef.

The first miracle that the prisoners cannot explain rationally is witnessed by Max Vetter and occurs after they leave the sinking ship. At first the men sprawl on the rubber covering from the ship, but then Ben Alef leads them toward the shore, walking across the water until they reach the sandy beach. He insists that they bring the body of Eisenheim with them, and after they have arrived on shore, he apparently brings Eisenheim back to life. With the addition of Max, the number of Ben Alef’s followers matches exactly that of Christ’s disciples.

Max, who has fished this bay for decades, believes in Ben Alef because he knows there is no sand bar that could...

(The entire section is 2060 words.)