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Flood Watcher

Fiction echoes the nightly news

Debra Cash
September 13, 2005

The levees had not yet been breached when I met the angel Adiel, who’s given the task of reporting the destruction of the world in a novel by the late Shlomo DuNour. Having ordered the book through interlibrary loan, I never imagined this Biblical imagining would arrive in time to be illustrated by CNN.

Adiel, translated with quiet grace by Philip Simpson, recounts the story of Eden and the expulsion from the Garden interspersed with the life of Noah. From the mouth of a cave on Mt. Ararat, the minor angel (whose name can be roughly translated as God’s witness) observes the impact of the murderous waters. He is shaken by the sight of two children lashed to a tree trunk. They had played with Noah’s own children, but the mariner is not allowed to stop his journey, to adopt them, to save them. Bobbing in a fetid ark, the survivors of the flood cannot see the corpses floating around them. But they know they are there.

Shlomo DuNour knew about floods of a different kind. Born in 1921 in Lodz, he lost his family in “the flood of our times during the Nazi period,” and wrote Adiel in 1998, long after the waters receded in fact if not in memory. At 17, he emigrated to Palestine and later taught history at Hebrew University and in Haifa. His angel remarks, “Only those taught to read were able to make use of the memory of things written. From this day on I was to be numbered among the privileged.” Adiel appears less interested in destruction than in the existential questions that invariably follow it. How can we live in such a world? Adiel learns to doubt and then to despair.

DuNour extrapolated from ancient midrash, asking what does it mean that Noah is a righteous man, and whether his righteousness is reckoned only in comparison to others. He has Shem chastise Noah, his father, asserting that “a righteous man cannot be righteous for himself alone.” With astonishing, blasphemous gentleness, DuNour’s God strikes a similar chord: “Why did you not entreat me not to destroy the world, when you were forewarned of the flood? Had you wrestled with me then as you have wrestled with me now, I might have heeded you.”