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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Living on the Dead

Aharon Megged

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To purchase The Living on the Dead

Title: The Living on the Dead
Author: Aharon Megged
Genre: Novel
Written: 1965 (Eng. 1970)
Length: 282 pages
Original in: Hebrew
Availability: The Living on the Dead - US
The Living on the Dead - UK
The Living on the Dead - Canada
The Living on the Dead - India
  • Hebrew title: החי על המת
  • Translated by Misha Louvish

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Our Assessment:

B+ : amusing conceit, well-done

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Living on the Dead is narrated by a writer, Jonah Rabinowitch -- but Jonah isn't quite that much of a writer. On the basis of the beginning of a novel, a chapter called A Hero of Our Time, published in three instalments in a newspaper, he's suddenly a rising literary star in Israel and gets a commission to write a book about a real hero and legend of the nation and the times, Abrasha Davidov. The money and the terms are too good to pass up, and he signs the contract that soon becomes a millstone.
       When the novel begins Rabinowitch is in the middle of a protracted court case, his publisher suing him for breach of contract. Yes, Rabinowitch has clearly failed miserably in the undertaking. In fact, he's failed miserably all around, the book having also been the death-knell for his short-lived marriage, as his difficulties in seeing anything through manifest itself here as well.
       The novel has two mains strands. One part is the story of the author's sad and sorry state and how he came to this -- a story of not being able to write which, ironically, seems to be the only thing he can write, though even here there are some hiccups:

I thought I would write this story at one stretch, the tale unfolding like a carpet. But they won't let me. Every now and then the blood rises to my head and I feel myself choking when I remember that damned trial.
       The consequences of losing the trial would be grave. The author has no income and is behind on his rent. But in part what he's fighting for is not artistic freedom like his attorney keeps claiming, but rather: "Freedom not to write !" In fact, his attorney tells him that he could get out of this by just delivering something -- gibberish will, as long as he fulfils the letter of the contract. But Rabinowitch has too much integrity for that.
       The problem is, of course, the subject, Davidov: "A man who has become a legend. Or a symbol.". Rabinowitch describes his research: the encounters he has, people he meets, information he digs up. Much of Davidov's life is related in the book, from his humble beginnings in the Palestinian territories of the 1920s to the slowly growing legend around him. But despite accumulating the material -- and, in part, because of what he finds -- Rabinowitch can't go through with it. In a convenient kind of Freudian slip -- he's not sure that he meant to do it, or even what exactly happened -- he ultimately manages to rid himself of his burden -- but then winds up with a different one, in the form of the lawsuit.
       The Living on the Dead is, in part, a variation of the claim Brecht has his Galileo make: poor is the nation that needs heroes. Rabinowitch -- a man keenly aware of his very human failings -- at one point even rants about his subject:
He was the greatest tyrant this country has known since it was rebuilt. He was a saint, yes, a great saint. But is there a more terrible tyranny in the world than the tyranny of saints ? The wicked may condemn you to suffering, torment, terror. But the righteous don't let you live !
       Megged offers two fine character-studies here -- in both cases helped by the very colourful supporting casts he surrounds them with. There's would-be writer Rabinowitch, seduced by the literary scene in the Cellar, overwhelmed by his subject (and Davidov-enthusiasts, including an actor who is ready to pay for the dramatization of the Davidov-story). From his apartment -- an old sculptor's studio that he hasn't even cleaned out yet -- to his sad marriage, Megged creates a vivid portrait of the artist. Davidov, meanwhile is both more elusive and larger than life, but Megged shows what allowed for the hero-worship and legend-making that followed him, a frontier-tale of sorts familiar from every corner of the world.
       It's an enjoyable if occasionally almost over-full mix. Megged is a solid craftsman, and a pleasure to read, The Living on the Dead is an accomplished entertainment on a number of levels.

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The Living on the Dead: Reviews: Aharon Megged:
  • Aharon Megged at the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
Other books by Aharon Megged under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Israeli author Aharon Megged (אהרון מגד) was born in Poland in 1920. He died in 2016.

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