Come the millennium, depending on your druthers, you may be enjoying a champagne toast atop the Eiffel Tower, copulating madly in front of Dick Clark on TV, or joining a prayerful throng of believers who expect to be vacuumed up into heaven. Perhaps in hope of jumping on board this countdown, Melvin Jules Bukiet has set his novel Signs and Wonders, with its depiction of messianic mania and revelation, in the weeks leading up to the big 2K.
Bukiet’s opening carries great promise. A German prison barge moored on the Baltic coast is ripped free by a huge storm and all the inmates are drowned except for the 12 in cell block 306. This dirty dozen include assorted murderers, rapists and cannibals, a Nazi, a poisoner of wealthy widows, and an assassin who favors the ice pick. Also among the bunch is Snakes Hammurabi, all-around bad guy, and Ben Alef, a thin young man who never speaks and who will serve as Bukiet’s messianic figure. As the ship sinks, Alef walks the other 11 across the water to land where, next morning, they warily regard their miraculous experience. His companions recognize the concentration-camp number tattooed on Alef’s forearm and wonder how this impossibly young man can be a victim of the Holocaust. As if to nudge their faith along, Alef raises Eisenheim, the Nazi commander at Bergen-Belsen, from the dead.
Miraculous doings—Alef feeds a hungry wedding party by restaging the ceremony as a Jewish wedding and filling the chuppa with hundreds of ears of corn—trouble the pope as well as German authorities. Upon arrival in Hamburg, with hundreds of followers in tow, the apostolic prisoners are thrown in jail. Their followers, the “New Jews,” gather outside and begin burning their arms over trash-barrel fires; the self-immolation soon gives way to orgiastic sex.
Bukiet’s descriptions slide easily from the tactile realism of prison to the surreal theatrics of the supernatural and apocalyptic: “Perhaps they had descended a flight of watery footsteps and didn’t even perceive the level at which water usurped the place of air in their lungs.” He doesn’t indicate whether he thinks the path on this slippery slope to belief is an ascent or descent; his lyricism tilts heavenward while his cynicism drags us back down.
Although Alef remains generally silent amidst the hubbub, he does give forth occasional pronouncements: someone asks if he’s cold and he replies, “No, it’s warm.” Then, in the manner of Jerzy Kosinki’s Chance Gardener in Being There, this simple statement is enhanced by meaning-hungry interpretation. Snakes clarifies for the reporters present, “He said, it was cold, but now it is warm. We are all coming in from the cold, into the fold, to the warmth, to the comfort, to the light.” Meanwhile, the pope’s emissary and German bigwigs meet to plan Alef’s downfall, which ultimately unleashes a bloody conflagration and a wave of anti-
Semitism across the world.
This jagged territory of guilt, hope, and rage is familiar to Bukiet, who previously wrote about the Holocaust and its theological implications in his novel After, and a collection of stories, While the Messiah Tarries. Once again he asks perplexing questions about the Holocaust: Are its victims somehow sanctified? Is German redemption possible? Was God absent at Auschwitz? Many of the most barbed responses come from Eisenheim, the Nazi mass murderer. His nutshell theology—”We know Him when we kill Him”—embraces both the death camps and the crucifixion of Christ. He also vents the unsayable: “You wonder why we did it… We did it because we wanted to!”
In a carnivalesque apocalypse staged at EuroDisney in France, where Alef is expected to resurrect the frozen Walt Disney, the remaining apostles (the rest have been killed), Eisenheim, Snakes, and Max, are all possible candidates for the role of Judas. But in all this millennial tumult Bukiet seems to have lost the sure-handed control with which he handily made the divine credible. His many juggled tones—comic, philosophical, absurdist—tumble together messily amid weighty material about God and evil; the resulting flurry of ideas never really coheres, except maybe around the notion that the one enduring belief is anti-Semitism. Bukiet’s exploration of faith is undermined by facile satire of religious commercialism while his provocative Nazi philosophizing is hardly fresh, having been done by George Steiner in The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.
The novel remains, in its first third, a luminous evocation of the bone and blood mechanics of ethereal things, yet this skilled conjuring of mystery is undone by the usual suspects: race hatred, capitalism, and lust. With an energetically meaning-laden plot, which parodies as well as honors the New Testament, Bukiet wants us to accept the possibility of redemption, while at the same time, understand it to be a fraud. Such a potentially unsettling ambiguity requires, strangely enough, greater certainty on the writer’s part. Signs and Wonders may have served Bukiet well as a scratch pad for working through his own dilemma of faith, but its ultimate ambivalence seems less the product of intent than mere confusion.