God's Grace

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

A brief but dispositive thermonuclear war defaces and depopulates the earth. An enormous flood follows. God enters, behind a black cloud. He addresses Calvin Cohn, a short, balding paleologist in his late thirties who is horrified to find that he is the sole surviving human. “I regret to say,” says God, “that it was through a minuscule error that you escaped destruction.” He admonishes Cohn to live quickly, to take “a few deep breaths. . . . Beyond that lies nothing for you.” Cohn, a dropout from the rabbinate, tries to negotiate with God but gains no advantage. God exits, snapping shut the crack in the cloud. When Cohn raises his fist to the heavens in anger, he is bombarded with a shower of rocks.

An aptly perverse modern version of the Genesis account of creation, this opening episode sets the tone of God’s Grace, a tone which is at once delightfully irreverent and frighteningly ominous. As the story develops, the irreverence remains but loses its lightness and becomes a daring confrontation with the terrifying developments which God’s anger promises. This opening episode also introduces the novel’s principal literary technique, which is biblical irony. Bernard Malamud is clearly secure in his knowledge of the Bible stories. He deftly inverts one after another, as he does with the creation story, to show how, when their central message is misunderstood or ignored, they become stories of God’s punishment rather than God’s mercy.

The inverted Bible stories are lived out, in a sort of accelerated Jewish history, by the small society which Cohn founds and over which he presides until his death. Given Malamud’s masterful narrative skills, it is scarcely remarkable that the society consists of a band of chimpanzees, a lone gorilla, and a few baboons, all of whom have escaped to the idyllic island on which Cohn finds himself after the floodwaters recede. Nor is it very odd that the chimps speak, albeit in a somewhat precious dialect; that they have biblical names; and that each is, if not a well-developed character, at least a well-developed character-type.

The educated chimp is Buz, who was taught speech and the tenets of Christianity by Cohn’s scientist colleague Walther Bünder, a “round-faced man with a rectilinear view of life.” Finding the young male chimp affectionate and alert, Cohn undertakes to educate him and to treat him like a son. Discomforted to hear Buz insist that Jesus preached to the chimps, Cohn reflects, as he begins life on his new island home, that “if one of them was a Christian and the other a Jew, Cohn’s Island would never be Paradise.” The attractive chimp is Mary Madelyn, the only young female on the island, and the object of the desires of Buz, of his competitor the brutish Esau, and eventually of Cohn himself. The other chimps are an assemblage of senior citizens and children. George the gorilla is a silent but omnipresent gloomy observer, evidently meant to be a reincarnation of Cohn’s rabbi father. The baboons are the clan inhabiting the other end of the island, latecomers without speech, who become the inevitable magnet for the chimps’ violence.

In the hope that he can elevate the new society to a level where they, too, can make a covenant with God, Cohn begins to deliver his store of human knowledge and values to the primates (not monkeys, Cohn corrects the memory of his rabbi father, who responds that “To me it’s all the same, a monkey is a monkey”). Humorously drawing on familiar biblical images, Malamud has Cohn give his lectures from a stool set on a teaching platform under the eucalyptus tree into which the chimps climb each day to listen,sitting alone or in two’s, chewing leaves and spitting them out; or cracking nuts they had brought along, and eating them out of their palms as they listened to Calvin Cohn lecture; or groomed themselves and their partners as he droned on. When the lectures got to be boring they would shake branches and throw nuts at him.

As they founder in obedience to ethical norms, Cohn gives the chimps his twentieth century version of the Ten Commandments, suitably adapted to primate society (“Blessed are those who divide the fruit equally”). He calls his moral rules the Seven Admonitions, reads them aloud to the chimps in the schooltree, and leads a cheer for each. Two figure prominently in Cohn’s eventual demise:

(The entire section is 1813 words.)