Grab Wanda by the ear

THE FIRST TIME you read this book, instinctively, you know you must be very careful. To cite Julian Schnabel’s film Basquiat: you might be looking at Van Gogh’s ear. This is the kind of metaphor that Lynn Joffe’s debut novel, The Gospel According to Wanda B. Lazarus presents. It’s a rich and thick mish-mash of Jewish and historical anachronism, spiced with euphemism so potently that it whips you away on a storm akin to Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange, or Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, in terms of how it repurposes language with bold, never casual, abandon.

By the time you reach page 44 or so, you might sigh with a sense of bewilderment, believing that she cannot possibly maintain this for another 400-odd pages and several lifetimes for her central protagonist. But, she does. Afire with chutzpah. Amidst all the self-consciously clever gymnastics to which Joffe subjects her prose, from transposing words to digging into and turning inside out cliches and platitudes, she evolves a compelling – and wise – satirical yarn which is as much about life and death, hatred, kinship and sexism as it is about the adventures of a character mistakenly endowed with immortality.

Taking chutzpah to a new level, in every possible permutation, and, like Irene Stephanou in her monologue about Jesus’ granny being Greek, or Nikos Kazantzakis in his Last Temptation of Christ, Joffe spawns Wanda out of the fabric of the tale of Lazarus in Bethany, during the time of Christ. Outrageously head-to-head with every sacred cow you can think of, she knows Jesus familiarly as ‘Yossi’ and sees indecent assault from ritual object-bearing men of God in sacred places. The gods of music also come under her cheeky focus and a pall is casts Stradivarius’s loyalties and idiosyncrasies. To say nothing of how far Fanny Mendelssohn can be pushed.

Indeed, religious narrative and musical praxis get to dance together with magnificence and vigour, tracing lines of musical thought from the bible to the new ice age, with lots of shenanigans in between, as the Jew’s harp sees evolution to the kithara, the cello and more.

But if you don’t know your shmekel from your kishkes, you might be cast a bit at sea in this morass of sexual legend and ancient classical riffs. It reeks of reading Sholem Aleichem’s prose in Yiddish without a contextual translator. There are areas where word order in a grammatical sentence says more about the meaning than the words themselves. Pomegranates take on a whole new life and juices other than the ones you might know them for. And apricots … well, let’s not jump the gun.

This tale of sexual ambiguity, favours and frissons, of musical mayhem in nine lives as Wanda skips through the centuries is blended with the mystical and sometimes downright stroppy presence of nine classical muses who court with fate and their brother Apollo, between Wanda’s lives, tossing feminist values with a bit of vegan philosophy and political correctness into the mix, for good measure.

But the absolute gold of this book happens about half way through, when our heroine gets to meet Stradivarius, himself. It’s 17th century Italy, all aswarm with innuendo and bad hygiene and it in this this chapter that Joffe comes into her own, with a textual flow that is voluptuous and resonant, rhythmic and really clever. And it hits the mark – or sounding board – every time. This doesn’t always happen in every chapter; oft the stories are so intertwined and replete with detail: funny, bizarre, critical and quick, that you may lose your footing as to its sense.

Allowing yourself to catch your breath after this rollicking crazy read, you may consider it to be one of the great Jewish novels to emerge in contemporary times. With a healthy dollop of unprecious and downright rude self-deprecation and a rich amalgam of culture in proportions you might never have thought of, it sings with the same kind of madness as Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum, consorts with Jewish values as directly and provocatively as Amos Oz does in Judas.

Kudos must not be withheld, however, for the editor and proofreader of this book – Alison Lowry and Tracy Murinik, respectively. Riding on the crest of prose so idiosyncratic and achieving a smooth and errorless run of things of this nature, cannot be undermined. If culture matters to you, read this book. If you don’t you’re at risk of overlooking a literary yardstick.

  • The Gospel According to Wanda B. Lazarus: A Novel by Lynn Joffe is published by Modjaji Books (2020).

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