The Messiah of Stockholm
The main character in Cynthia Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm is not so much searching for an identity as trying to prove that the one he has chosen is real. He does this by insisting on its value: If, as he wants to believe, he is the son of the Polish Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, and if Schulz was indeed a genius, then anything Lars Andemening can do to advance the reputation of this man will give meaning to his own existence.
All that Andemening really knows about his origin is that he was smuggled as a baby from Poland to Sweden by a kindly “mercantile traveler” before he could be swept up by the Nazi purge of Polish Jewry. Brought up as a foster child by strangers, he sets out on his own when he is sixteen, and ends up as a book reviewer for the Stockholm newspaper Morgontörn. His job is to provide reviews for the Monday editions of the newspaper, and he invariably devotes his reviews to obscure and involuted Central European authors. The Monday reviews, the reader is told, go mostly unnoticed by the Morgontörn’s readers, so Andemening, like the books he reviews, remains a shadowy figure, treated with offhand contempt by his better-known fellow reviewers, Gunnar Hemlig and Anders Fiskyngel.
Andemening, in short, is a nobody as far as the world is concerned. He is cut off in his personal life as well. Twice divorced, he has no contact with his former wives. His second wife, Ulrika, has taken their daughter Karin to America, leaving him with no tie to this part of his past except his mother-in-law—which is no tie at all, as far as he is concerned, since she is stupid.
So he plunges into his made-up life as the son of Bruno Schulz. He searches the murdered writer’s stories and letters, as well as anything written about him, for evidence of his own kinship with him. He is like Telemachus looking for his legendary father, and in the process he ascribes his own literary insights to Schulz’s spirit in him.
As Heidi Eklund, the elderly proprietor of the bookshop he frequents, points out, reality for Andemening is literary. It makes an illusion of the identity he claims for himself. How can he prove, after all, that he is Schulz’s son on the basis of internal evidence alone? That he looks somewhat like the writer is no proof either.
None of this deters Andemening from his belief, however, nor from his search for The Messiah, the lost masterpiece Schulz was said to have written before he was shot down in Drohobycz, Poland, by the SS in 1942.
Heidi Eklund herself is a tenuous figure. She is a refugee, too, but her story is as much hearsay as Andemening’s. A German, she says that she threw food over the fence of the concentration camp she lived near during the war, but she knows too much about the camp for Andemening to believe that she was an innocent bystander. She also refers to her husband, Dr. Eklund, and to the flat they share, but Andemening, never allowed to see either one, believes that they are fictions.
Heidi and Andemening share a symbiotic friendship as shadowy persons, both immersed in the literary—he as a critic and would-be translator, she as a bookseller. She helps him track down Bruno Schulz memorabilia and even puts him in touch with a Mrs. Rozanowska, who teaches him Polish.
Eventually, through Heidi, Andemening meets Adela, who claims to be Bruno Schulz’s daughter and to possess the original manuscript of The Messiah. Andemening refuses to believe her outlandish story, which includes how her mother was Schulz’s lover when she was a fifteen-year-old art student of his in Drohobycz, and how the manuscript of The Messiah, buried in a peasant’s basement, came to light in Warsaw after the war through the accidental agency of a “high party official,” a friend of Adela’s mother.
Like everything else so far in the story, truth relies on words alone. Andemening is increasingly skeptical of this source, except in his own case. He wants to believe that The...
(The entire section is 1658 words.)