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VN-K-001 (detail), by Lyndon Barrois Jr. Courtesy the artist

VN-K-001 (detail), by Lyndon Barrois Jr. Courtesy the artist

Few writers can inhabit multiple characters with equal intensity and vivacity, and most who can are, of course, playwrights or screenwriters. Sidik Fofana’s debut collection, Stories from the Tenants Downstairs (Scribner, $26), reveals him to have this rare gift. The collection introduces us to eight black residents of the Banneker Terrace apartments in Harlem. As the poem that introduces the collection asks, “Everybody got a story, everybody got a tale / Question is: Is it despair or prevail?”

Each piece introduces a character walking this tightrope: Mimi, a single mom with a learning-disabled son and grand ambitions, is a hairstylist scrabbling to make rent. Swan, her ex, tells us how he almost unwillingly rips off the delivery guy from the local Chinese restaurant—a plan suggested by his old pal Boons, just out of jail, and their friend Miller. Swan goes along, although he yearns for change: “Wifebeaters and do-rags on, wastin our life . . . we been doin that for ten years and it make you think: Is that all the next ten years got in store for us?” Ms. Dallas, Swan’s mother, a respected matriarch, has long worked as a paraprofessional at the middle school, but she, too, frets about losing her apartment. Unlike the book’s younger characters, she has no truck with fantasy. Rather, she sees clearly and compassionately the struggles of the students she works with. When the superintendent comes to observe the school, a series of darkly comic misadventures leads to the comeuppance of a disastrously arrogant (white) teacher named Mr. Broderick with whom Ms. Dallas has serious issues; but also, sadly, to the expulsion of a recently orphaned girl named Kandese.

Fofana, a public school teacher in Brooklyn, brilliantly evokes the students’ experiences and voices: two of the collection’s most moving stories belong to middle schoolers. “The Young Entrepreneurs of Miss Bristol’s Front Porch” recounts the summer when a young girl named Kandese is sent to stay with her grandmother in the countryside after getting expelled. She opens a shop of sorts, reselling candy on her grandma’s porch, where, with her new friends, she hopes to make $500. Kandese writes to a local TV station suggesting that they cover the girls’ project: “We poor and everybody we know is poor, but we doin suttin positive for the community,” she explains in her letter: “We all respectful girls. Kind and got manners.”

Kandese navigates her popular friend Bernita’s ego and temper (“we seen her snatch weaves, bite necks, stomp chicks out, all that”), but adversity comes unexpectedly in the form of four boys—“or should I say men. They all at least sixteen or older and got scarves tied around they heads.” Their leader, Wild One, sets out to charm the girls: Bernita is willingly complicit, but Kandese knows, and we know, that what he really wants is their money. What unfolds, like a La Fontaine fable, is all the more poignant for its inevitability.

Fofana makes us feel viscerally the weight of life’s injustice. He doesn’t idealize or airbrush his characters, yet he enables us to know their wit, ingenuity, joy, and resilience.

Left: Moses and the twelve tribes of Israel © Godong/Alamy. Right: Fragment from the Karaite Book of Exodus, circa tenth century. Courtesy the British Library, London

Left: Moses and the twelve tribes of Israel © Godong/Alamy. Right: Fragment from the Karaite Book of Exodus, circa tenth century. Courtesy the British Library, London

The protagonist of Graciela Mochkofsky’s Prophet of the Andes (Knopf, $30), ably translated by Lisa Dillman, is also a figure of enormous resolve. In 2003, Mochkofsky learned about Segundo Villanueva, “an indigenous Peruvian” and “good Catholic” who determined after years of study that Judaism was the one true faith, and who, with his followers, converted and moved from Peru to Israel. Theirs is a story spanning decades, leading from a village in the Peruvian mountains to a Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

When Segundo was around seventeen, he inherited, after his father’s murder, a family trunk containing a Bible, and he found the course of his life irrevocably altered. In contravention of his Catholic upbringing—in which “the Bible was for priests; they alone were permitted to read it and understand it”—he read the scriptures carefully and came to believe “with the shocking force of revelation” that the church had lied to him. He persuaded his family to question their Catholicism, then converted the employees in his carpentry business to the Seventh-day Adventist Church—one of a number of proselytizing Protestant sects in Peru at the time. After their relentless questioning exasperated the Adventist pastors, Segundo and his group were banned in 1962.

At that point, Segundo founded his own church, Israel of God. He eventually decided that it should “move into the Amazon, closer to God and farther from man.” After a hair-raising foray into the jungle, the congregation established a new settlement named Hebron. Committed above all to Bible study, Segundo realized that “what was vital . . . was learning to read the original: the Bible in Hebrew.” This led him to the Jews, and to the revelation that he and his followers were . . . Jewish.

This is only the beginning of Segundo’s story. Frustrated by the hostility of the Jewish community in Lima, Segundo’s group settled outside Trujillo, where they observed Jewish laws and strove to build a synagogue. In 1980, Victor Chico, one of the group’s core members, heard about an international contest “on biblical knowledge” that was sponsored by the Israeli government. Several people (though not Segundo) decided to enter, and eventually Victor won. The prize was a trip to Israel. Victor subsequently expressed to the community the desire to live in Israel, for which their conversion was required.

Help came to them in the form of Eliyahu Avichail, a Zionist who was determined to seek out the children of the scattered ten tribes, the descendants of Jacob’s sons besides Judah and Benjamin. Mochkofsky’s story broadens here to explain that proselytizing was not always forbidden in Judaism, but was banned before the third century bc. Avichail, who opened an office in Jerusalem named “Amishav, or My People Return” believed that the descendants of the ten tribes could be found in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, India, China, and Burma.

He and other visitors to Segundo’s community, who renamed themselves Bnei Moshe, were inspired by “their penury, their determination, and their sincerity.” With Avichail’s aid in 1989, sixty-eight of the aspirants passed the examination for conversion; by 1990, the group had immigrated to Israel. They settled in Elon Moreh in the West Bank, controversially for a number of their supporters, and their lives as Israeli Jews began.

To the dismay of many, Segundo, now named Zerubbabel, subsequently joined the Karaites, a movement of “almost Protestant Jews,” as Anthony Grafton once put it, who “rejected tradition and followed only scripture and reason.” He died in 2008, but the Peruvian Jewish community in Israel has grown as more have sought conversion—though largely, Mochkofsky suggests, with practical rather than religious fervor.

Segundo Villanueva’s story is remarkable—a sort of inverse of Christ’s narrative, from Catholic carpenter to founder of a Jewish community—and Mochkofsky tells it meticulously and with verve. Perhaps surprisingly, she refrains from commenting on its political implications: that the Bnei Moshe, along with the influx of Soviet and Ethiopian Jewish immigrants in the Eighties and Nineties, proved so useful for zealous proponents of Greater Israel that they were (and are) prepared to break with millennia of antiproselytizing tradition in order to swell the West Bank settlements. The continued conversion of Peruvians and other Latin Americans with no Jewish roots represents a fascinating and radical shift.

St. Mercurius killing the Roman emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus © The Picture Art Collection/Alamy

St. Mercurius killing the Roman emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus © The Picture Art Collection/Alamy

Thus do we find ourselves in a period of epistemic shift—perhaps inevitable in a new millennium—in which the orders and hierarchies of over two thousand years are called into question and open to revision. Alternative models emerge and what-ifs resound. Julian Barnes’s new novel Elizabeth Finch (Knopf, $26)—though novel seems a curious category for what is essentially a thoughtful essay lightly draped in novelistic garments—raises perennial questions by reflecting on the life and legacy of Julian the Apostate, a fourth-century Roman emperor who renounced Christianity.

Barnes is, of course, one of Britain’s most prolific and eminent novelists, esteemed for his elegant and formally innovative, often intellectual, fictions. A literary lineage can be traced from Flaubert’s Parrot or A History of the World in 10½ Chapters to Elizabeth Finch, but with time—and the weight of mortality, about which Barnes has written eloquently—a certain Mozartian lightness has been replaced by stolid earnestness. The novel’s title seems in part a nod to J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, a similarly essayistic novel, and while less dry than the work of Coetzee (whose great gifts do not include a sense of humor), the book is less engaging than, well, much of Julian Barnes.

Elizabeth Finch is narrated by Neil, once the adult student of the novel’s central character. Elizabeth taught Neil and his classmates a course called “Culture and Civilization,” in which she sought to summon “rigorous fun.” Neil, who lunched with her periodically for years afterward and was quietly in love with her, is bequeathed her papers after her death. He seeks to assemble something from her notes, and then, perhaps, to write her biography.

The novel is divided into three sections. In the first, Neil relates his history with Elizabeth Finch: she had over him a Miss Jean Brodie–like influence, and he tells us a good deal about what she was like, how she dressed and behaved, what texts she admired, and how she spoke about them. We learn about some of Neil’s classmates, and of their differing reactions to Finch’s unusual teaching style. Neil—who mentions in passing that he was between marriages at the time—is now in a relationship with one of them, a Dutch woman named Anna. He reveals his surprise at Finch’s death, and his greater surprise at inheriting her papers. He befriends her brother, Christopher, with whom she had a fairly distanced relationship. Then he shares extracts from Finch’s notebooks, a collection of meditations. For example, “The task of the present is to correct our understanding of the past. And that task becomes the more urgent when the past cannot be corrected.” He also encounters mysteries, such as the note “J, dead at thirty-one,” that cause him to seek details of her personal life. Then he comes across an entry that reads:

“Thou has conquered, O pale Galilean.” The moment when history went wrong. Romans inclusive of local gods. Monotheism v Plurality. Their connection to the life of the heart.

From this, Neil understands that “J, dead at thirty-one” refers to the fourth-century Roman emperor Julian, of whom Finch spoke in class. In honor of his mentor, Neil pens a lengthy essay about Julian and his reception over the years, which makes up the second section of the novel.

Barnes has set himself here an unexpected task. Neil is not, say, the great historian Peter Brown, but a middle-aged former actor who once took an adult-education class. It’s hard to know whether Barnes intends for us to recognize the quixotic nature of Neil’s project as chiefly Neil’s, so that we might understand that the representation of Finch is simply Neil’s projection just as much as Julian is only the sum of the projections of all who have claimed or reviled him; or whether Barnes intends for us to read Neil’s essay as though it were Barnes’s own reflections on the position of Julian the Hellenist, who opposed what was then the superstitious, violent, and primitive Christian religion. Julian was himself famously mild. “I have resolved . . . to employ gentleness and humanity towards the Galileans; I forbid any recourse to violence,” he once wrote. “It is by reason that one must convince and instruct men, not by blows, insults and torture.” If we read the essay beyond the confines of the novel as reflecting Barnes’s perspective, then retracing the lost path of Julian might be interpreted as a call for readers to question our contemporary inability to embrace multiplicity, hybridity, polyphony, and, of course, gentleness.

The novel’s third section follows Neil’s attempt to piece together Finch’s biography: “I sometimes wonder how biographers do it: make . . . a coherent life out of . . . contradictory and missing evidence.” Her brother’s long-ago glimpse of a possible lover sends Neil in search of further clues about her private life. He uncovers an incident referred to as “The Shaming,” which involved an unpleasant viral response to her work. He tracks down former classmates, including Anna, who startles him by having known Finch completely differently: they shared, among other things, a monthly swimming date at an indoor pool in Covent Garden, whereas Neil had said of her that “you couldn’t imagine her in beachwear.”

Ultimately, this is perhaps an exploration of the very notion of legacy, of what lives on after a person’s death, of the slippery and mutable details that might shape their memory. Having tried to capture Elizabeth Finch first through his memories, then through her notes and his interpretation of them, and finally through the memories of others, Neil muses that “we cannot tell, even on our deathbed . . . how we will be judged, or, if at all, remembered.” He concludes that “perhaps . . . I ‘know’ and ‘understand’ Elizabeth Finch no better . . . than I ‘know’ and ‘understand’ the emperor Julian.” This liberating realization (all I know is that I know nothing!) may be Neil’s, and may also be Barnes’s. It is certainly wise. One might wish only that Barnes had chosen a rather livelier and more compelling protagonist than stolid Neil alongside whom to journey toward this illuminating truth.

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