Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Undivided Heart

A critical comment on the cover of Anita Diamant's The Red Tent (Picador, 1997) hails, "It is tempting to say that The Red Tent is what the Bible would be like if it had been written by women . . ." This assertion raises all sorts of wonderful literary, philosophical, and historiographical questions. But those questions are so important neither to the book nor to this reader.

The Red Tent moves with the tidal pull of a regal aunt who finally tells your father's story from her perspective. True to how pre-literate agrarian culture must have felt, the narrative sticks to the reader's feet with all the grit, scents, and daily gore of human society protected only by sheets of canvas and its slow mobility. The appearance of biblical characters grown too familiar in the churched imagination of European minds sets the narrator's hook. There is no escape after the prologue: We are pulled, inexorably, soul-seduced, on the shore of the river where Dinah has her way with us.

The radical division of the sexes hinted at by the Old Testament takes on robust flesh in the life of Dinah. Diamant gives us cause to wonder: If the matriarchs were not silent chattel in the real Ancient Near East, is it possible that the patriarchs were not noble, courageous, and strong? Just as the Old Testament narrative gives women over to uncleanness, is it possible the men were brutish, mean, and deceptive? Exploring the poles of human sexuality and relationship opens up a whole spectrum of human experience, including the possibility that the journey of God's people was not direct, but more complex and mysterious. The cleft of doubt yawns wide: As Dinah herself puts it, life means learning to live with a divided heart.

Diamant ushers us with magnificent skill through innocence, loss, pain, and joy. Aside from one laborious passage leading in to Joseph's story (near the end of the book, after we fully trust Dinah), the complex scents and flavors of Dinah's world carry us naturally from one scene to another, hungry for the next encounter even in the mundane activities of cooking and spinning. We learn from Dinah that every relationship exists in perpetual danger of feast or famine, flood or drought; every next conversation could explode with joy or shatter with anger. And each moment, light or dark, affects the balance of the whole.

Perhaps the greatest feat of The Red Tent is its marriage of the Old Testament ethos with the zeitgeist of the turn-of-the-century West: There is no happy ending, only endurance. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but there will be another storm against which the sun will shine. This division between rain and light, storm and silence, is the rending of every human heart. It is why the reader can both weep and laugh in the space of three pages, then hunger for the time it will happen again.

This division is why The Red Tent probably speaks the true other half of the bible.

~ emrys