Friday, 27 July 2012

My Name is Asher Lev

A Review:

Asher Lev is a child with an extraordinary gift for painting. His father, Aryeh, is an emissary for the Rebbe, the leader of the Ladover Hasidic community. The two cultures, that of the Hasidic Jew and that of the artist, were always going to clash and so the novel has that marvellous inbuilt tragic narrative that sucks Readers in because we predict the collision and then read on, eager to discover the form the collision takes, and  to witness the wreckage.

In a way readers are like the "slow down" drivers who pass the car crash at the slowest speed possible, eager to see the wrecked cars, even to catch a glimpse of the broken bodies. It shocks us, but I suspect, it also makes us feel alive. There is an inbuilt fascination with destruction, with the tragic lives of others - the same fascination drives readers who turn the pages eager for the literary wreckage.

And like any author in command of his story, Chaim Potok builds the tension throughout the novel. There is Asher's powerful relationship with his mother, and the struggle with the autocratic rule of his father. At one point Asher must learn to paint nudes if he is to reach his full potential as an artist. It is against the Hasidic code to look upon a woman's naked form (let alone paint it) but Asher must break that code, must break with his community if he is to further his art.

And so we have this wonderful novel about the need for an artist to break with everything, to challenge everything and, as if that were not enough (and of course, it never is) the artist, to be truly great, must use everything, even his/her family and him/herself, as subjects for the art. Nothing must be guarded, keep hidden, kept safe from the shining light of her/his art. And it must be revealed - honestly explored and truthfully displayed.

In the end, Asher does two things which break the connection between himself and his family; the ultimate wreckage of the book, as we knew it would be from the opening pages where the connection between the young boy and the mother is already powerful and strange.

He paints a great picture - the making of him as an artist and the very painting he did not wish to pain but the artist within compelled him. The painting involves his mother and it involves the image of the crucifix. His mother as Christ, as it were. The image is too shocking for his Hasidic parents, too shocking and too revealing.

This is a great book. Another of the set of novels I regularly return to. I love the building tension and, of course, I enjoy the young artist who must work hard and sacrifice much in order to reach his potential.

There is another reason that the book grabbed me, though. That brilliant painting that Chaim describes, the great painting of Asher's mother, is a powerful image of my mother also. In the book the painting uses the Venetian Blinds as the wood of the cross - for Asher's mother would often stand, late at night, her hands pushing the straps aside, as she stood staring out through the blinds, and that image is a strong one of have of my own mother and her nightly vigil, waiting for her children to return safely home.

That is the thing about books, the thing that ultimately grabs us. In them there is not just the characters we come to know, in there is often something of ourselves. An image, an emotion, an event, that triggers our own memories, our own experiences, our own hidden shadows or treasured joys.

My Name is Asher Lev is a must read for anyone who wants to understand some of the forces at work as a young person begins to journey to becoming an artist, about the need for youth to find their own path, about the images we carry of our mother or father, images that often define large parts of our lives.

There is truth in this book and in the end, we may enjoy the sight of wreckage, whether reader or voyeur, but it is truth that will bring us back to a book again and again.

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