Raphael Magarik (contributing writer): As we read through Exodus in shul, I have been following along at home in Zora Neale Hurston’s 1939 novel Moses, Man of the Mountain, which I fortuitously discovered at an estate sale. Neither as exuberantly erotic or emotionally powerful as her 1937 masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Moses, Man of the Mountain retells the Exodus story but twists the details; though Hurston preserves the Bible’s sequence and much of its material, she announces in an introduction that she has incorporated folkloric traditions from the African diaspora—producing a Moses who is less God’s loyal servant than an independent magus.
Hurston imagines Moses as Egyptian, just as Freud does in Moses and Monotheism, which was published the same year as Moses, Man of the Mountain. In Exodus, Moses’ sister observes his retrieval form the river by Pharaoh’s daughter; in Hurston’s novel, Miriam is distracted from her brother by the glamorous princess’s arrival, and she invents the adoption narrative to excuse her lapse in watching the baby. Though the novel leaves Moses’ origins ambiguous, Miriam’s fiction–which plays on Hurston’s own renovation of the canon–influences Moses’ life, ultimately making him a Hebrew and setting in motion the Israelites’ liberation. Yet Hurston’s Miriam has a tragic end, as she is gradually excluded from public life.
Meanwhile, the in-between Moses—never fully Egyptian, never fully Israelite—parallels the novel’s experiment with racial anachronism: all the characters, from Pharaoh down to the Israelite slaves, speak in Black English, and a viciously racist speech about miscegenation with Hebrews is ironically given to the novel’s only unambiguously Black character, an Ethiopian princess disgusted by Moses’ touch. Meanwhile, European fascism lurks on the horizon: the new ruler of Exodus becomes a nationalist demagogue, and an invented sequence about martial games before Pharaoh seems to inscribe into the biblical story the drama of Jesse Owens’s victory over white athletes at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
I am not sure what to make of all this—although famous as a Black folklorist and a brilliant writer, Hurston apparently had pretty bad politics (she was, for instance, opposed to the New Deal, for which Pharaoh’s public-building program seems to stand). But it’s a wonderfully confounding literary experiment, playing understated games with the Bible (the editor’s introduction to my edition contains the tellingly mistaken observation that Hurston changed nothing from scripture!), as when she has Jochebed longing that Pharaoh will revoke his harsh decree and they can “circumcise [Moses] and hold a christening,” so that it “would be just like old times.” The sly joke in that double-feature circumcision and christening (exactly which old times were those?) is characteristic of this novel’s vertiginous layering of contemporary politics, African folklore, and biblical narrative.
Nathan Goldman (managing editor): Early in The Jewish Son, an electrifying novella by the Argentine writer Daniel Guebel, arriving in English in April, the narrator makes a bold claim: “Franz Kafka’s Letter to His Father is one of my favorite books; if I had to choose between rescuing this handbook of self-disparagement and reproach from a blazing fire, or Ulysses, I’d abandon Joyce’s pyrotechnic novel to the flames and burn my fingers to save the few pages written by the Czech Jew.” We soon learn that the autofictional narrator, also named Daniel, is so attached to this minor work because Kafka’s tempestuous relationship with his father parallels Daniel’s own. The Jewish Son, vividly translated by Jessica Sequeria, centers on this fraught bond, slipping seamlessly between recollections of a youth defined by a domineering father and a present consumed with care for this patriarch, now laid low by age and illness. While brief mentions of the Argentine military dictatorship hint at the contestations of power unfolding in the wider world—Daniel’s father, a follower of Lenin, belongs to an illegal political organization—Guebel remains focused on the intimate struggle between father and son. But following his literary idol, Daniel understands this conflict as nothing less than metaphysical. “For Kafka,” he explains enigmatically, “the Law is no longer God but the Father, and the struggle is no longer to understand Him (for the Father, like God, is at the mercy of His own whim, and to the violence of His formulations) but to be understood by Him, and to confront Him so that he may survive.”
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): In all the furor over the recently issued Sight and Sound list of the best films of all time, one film’s scandalous omission went unnoticed. Marcel Ophuls’s documentary The Sorrow and the Pity, showing for only a week at Film Forum in a newly restored version, is an essential film from a strictly cinematic point of view: a magnificent account of France during the Occupation, focusing on one city, Clermont-Ferrand in the Auvergne. But it’s even more significant for changing the way the French looked at themselves and their country’s past.
Though it was originally made for French TV in 1969, the television authorities—there were only two channels at the time, both run by the state—refused to broadcast it, so it was released commercially, running for 87 weeks in Paris. Its portrait of wartime France made it impossible for the French to view their occupied country as made up solely of brave Resistance fighters. Ophuls interviews farmers, French and English politicians, Germans who served in France, Communists, monarchists, French fascists, and Resistance members of various stripes, providing the full scope of the French reactions to their defeat at the hands of the Germans. To complete the picture, Ophuls makes great use of contemporary newsreel footage—both German and French—showing the love many of the French felt for General Philippe Pétain, head of the collaborationist government; the might of Germany; and the day-to-day concerns of the French, with footage of families encouraged to eat rabbit and women shown applying dye to their legs to replace unavailable silk stockings. The France of The Sorrow and the Pity was a country not only defeated by an external enemy, but also eaten away by internal rot, with a bourgeoisie that preferred Hitler to the socialist Léon Blum.
Another film, opening next weekend, also inspires sorrow and pity. Teodora Ana Mihai’s La Civil is a harrowing tale of a Mexico destroyed by drug cartels, who act with virtual impunity; a government unable and unwilling to stop them; and a people morally defeated by these internal enemies. When Doña Cielo’s daughter is kidnapped by a cartel, which demands an enormous ransom, she and her estranged husband pay. But the girl isn’t returned. The police are indifferent, and at first they can’t be told of the kidnapping in any case; they’re corrupt, and would just inform the cartel. And so Doña Cielo—in a brilliant performance by Arcelia Ramirez, who appears in virtually every shot of the film—sets out on her own to find her child. Everywhere she turns, she encounters treachery, brutality, callousness, and cowardice. In the face of her courage, she encounters omnipresent fear, which extinguishes all hope. Even Dona Cielo ultimately gets dragged into the mire, as the corruption of her society enters her soul as well. In the Mexico of La Civil, moral purity is impossible.