Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Book of Daniel by E.L Doctorow

The culpability of the state in a person's life is often the subject of writers from authoritarian regimes.  What happens when a democratic state goes after its own citizens - even to the point of executing them? How do we react? How are the survivors affected?

In the post-war carving up of Europe, lines were drawn between the victors, with Germany cut in two, a Soviet side, that became East Germany and a French-British-American side. The axis of power that had shifted with the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki heralded the new age, of nuclear threat and opposing super powers. As Europe was divided, the ideologically divide that had placed Communism in direct opposition to Fascism - a left and a right - was mirrored in some ways in the post-war settlements. In Britain a socialist government, creating not the revolutionary state of the far left, but a social settlement, a welfare state; in America, the victors of the war in a political sense, seeing the allied Russia becoming a real and ideological enemy, with McCarthyism requiring a rationale.

In E.L. Doctorow's 1970 novel, "The Book of Daniel", he takes a historical (though recent) case and creates a fictionalisation. The execution of the Rosenbergs by the U.S. state for passing nuclear secrets to Russia was the high point (low point) of America's paranoia about the far left. Mentioned at the start of Plath's "The Bell Jar" this 1953 state double-execution left a long shadow, especially as later testimony would indicate Ethel's innocence of the charges against her.  Little more than a generation after it had taken place, America was in the latest of its proxy wars with Communism, via Vietnam. America's young were now longer deferential to a state apparatus that could send them to die for a meaningless war in a far off land.

Doctorow takes considerable risks on every page. Paul and Rochelle Isaacson are close corollaries to the Rosenbergs, and parts of the actual case (and execution) are repeated. But this is a fiction despite its closeness in memory. Instead of two sons they have a son and a daughter, and it is through the son's eyes, in a near present of 1967, that we hear the story. Doctorow shifts frequently between timeframes and perspectives. Daniel's narrative slips from first to third person mid-paragraph. He is recently married - unsuitably - and has a small child. He is a doctoral researcher. His younger sister - we discover - has gone off the rails and has been taken into a facility for the mentally ill. His surrogate parents are a middle class couple whom he cannot quite resent, but cannot love unfailingly. He is trying to make sense of his life, and the legacy he has been left. He talks at one point of how he will always be made politically impotent because of who he is - he cannot join the draft, they will reject him at some point, he cannot be a rebel, the parental stain as "traitors" would taint any course he associates with. His young wife has been learning to be a hippy, but her attraction to him is sexual. She is available, willing, malleable. His darkness comes out in his sexual relations with her, or in the speed at which he drives his car. It is not just that the execution of his parents took away childhood but its also took away any agency over his future. His younger sister, less caught up in the memories of the past, but in some ways more affected by them, becomes radicalised, wants their trust fund (money provided to give a future to these two innocents) to become a fighting fund in her parents' name.

It is not just the fictionalising of such a notable case that makes this novel risky, but the way that Doctorow shuffles his material. He throws in historical insights, commentary and facts that echo the then-current "new journalism", but he is at his best when he shifts between Daniel's confusion of memories, shuffling the present with the vague recollections of his family. His father was a barely competent radio repair man. They lived in a cramped house in a poor neighbourhood. Only the black janitor that lived in their basement seemed poorer than them. Yet they weren't quite like other Jewish families in the neighbourhood - for Paul and Rochelle were ideologues who had found a meaning and an everyday pattern through their communism. They went on marches, and they had a range of ideological friends including the older, lecherous dentist who would give them lifts, but crucially, would also be the "friend" who would finger them to the authorities. Daniel tries to recall if his parents were guilty, and he can find little there in memory - just a confusion of memories and images that lead, it seems, to his father, a man too ideologically naive for his own good, to becoming the necessary patsy for a government that almost needed a traitor in their midst. A visit to a performance by Paul Robeson indicates the febrile politics of this pre-civil rights time, and when their bus is halted on its return, it is Paul, the ideologically driven one, who puts his head above the parapet - a gesture that as well as the immediate injuries may well have led to their ultimate fate.

But of course, a child can only see our understand so much - and when their parents are incarcerated, they are first taken to an unwelcoming aunt and then to a state run children's home, where they are separated by their sex, a separation that is probably as traumatic as being taken from their parents.

It's one of those books where a re-telling of plot hardly covers the book's qualities. For the impressionistic approach Doctorow takes to the material creates a freedom in his prose that takes it above and beyond the actual case of the Rosenbergs. Set in his own contemporary world, with Vietnam as the new backdrop, you get the sense that the Rosenbergs/Isaaccsons were canaries in the coalmine - a world of paranoia of which they were young, naive victims, would not be sustainable in a democracy going forward as a younger less deferential generation, of which their son and daughter become emblems, fights back against the injustices of their state.

The prose is a delight, and reads like it could have been written yesterday. In his short story "A writer in the family" from the early 1980s, Doctorow gives us a retrospective and somewhat traditional story of a Jewish boy outgrowing the restrictions of his family; here the canvas is much larger yet it is the intimacies, and the concentration on the present-day Daniel which gives such resonance to the historical canvas.

In an America of today, where Communism has been replaced by Radical Islam as the threat, and where Chelsea Manning has been treated with the same contempt as the Rosenbergs were in 1953, the book retains a contemporary resonance beyond it subject matter. It's something of a masterpiece.

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