'Signs and Wonders' -- millennial magic

April 18, 1999|By Marc M. Arkin | By Marc M. Arkin,Special to the Sun

"Signs and Wonders," by Melvin Jules Bukiet. St. Martins Press. 376 pages. $26.

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, an over-the-top novel about the millennium in which the messiah reappears in Germany as a Jewish youth last seen alive on his way to the ovens of Bergen-Belsen.

And how much better if this messiah first reveals himself to a group of 11 convicts -- including the last incarcerated Nazi war criminal -- sharing a cell on a prison barge (read ark) that breaks apart during a storm, then walks on water with his cellmates to the shore, recruits a local fisherman as a 12th disciple, raises the aforementioned Obersturmbannfuhrer from the dead twice (no less), and subsequently provides food and wine to a local wedding party. And, while you're at it, why not name him Ben Alef -- son of the Alpha -- for good measure.

Now, I don't get out much. So, to steal a line from Calvin Trillin, it is fair to say that any book whose symbolism I understand can justifiably be accused of heavy-handedness. In "Signs and Wonders," I got the symbolism, and there's a lot.

The group, gathering adherents as they go, travels to Hamburg (read Jerusalem) where they are arrested by the authorities and fall in with a local publican who bails them out and markets the "New Jewish" movement. Meanwhile, the messiah continues performing miracles, finds his Mary Magdalene, discovers his mother (a former nun named Margot), and incurs opposition from the powers-that-be, including -- who else? -- the Vatican.

Next, the Vatican enlists the moral authority of a Holocaust survivor (who, in a Plot Twist, is the publican's brother) to deny Him (we've switched to capitals by now). The plan backfires and triggers a brutal riot (read Armageddon), the grisly murders of disciples in ways that echo their besetting sins, and the departure of the Messiah for the last act.

That occurs on New Year's Day 2000 in the EuroDisney theme park -- the epicenter of modern spirituality. (In the interests of brevity, I have omitted the theological musings woven throughout the book; suffice it to say that they are intended to be Profound and Ironic.)

By now, the Disney animals are real, they beg for the resurrection of their cryogenically preserved "Father," and Pluto turns out to be the genuine Lord of the Underworld. So, while Walt melts, Pluto ties up the remaining loose ends of the plot by having the German fisherman kill the Messiah, repeating the Obersturmbannfuhrer's explanation: "We did it because we wanted to."

"Signs and Wonders" is wildly overwritten. And, if the plot is sometimes inconsistent, there is always too much of it. This may reflect artistic license and the conventions of magical realism -- but I think it would be nice to settle on whether the messiah is resurrected as he is for the first third of the book or born of woman as he is for the last two-thirds.

I imagine a lot of this, including the overly vivid descriptions of sex, sacrilege and violence (not to mention self-mutilation by Ben Alef's adherents) was supposed to be "darkly humorous." Myself, I just found them -- and the book -- uncommonly unpleasant.

Marc Arkin, a professor of law at Fordham University in New York City, holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Yale and writes widely about a variety of popular and scholarly subjects, with emphasis in religion.

Pub Date: 04/18/99

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