Mandrakes from the Holy Land, by Aharon Megged, translated by Sondra Silverston. New Milford, CT: The Toby Press, 2005. 205 pp. $22.95.
Aharon Megged's recently translated novel, Mandrakes from the Holy Land, at once elegantly wrought and erudite, offers an unusual portrait of Palestine in the early years of the twentieth century. His protagonist, Beatrice Campbell-Bennett, is a disconsolate member of the English social elite whose unfashionable spiritual yearnings and unrequited love for Vanessa Stephen, Virginia Woolf's less famous sister, impel her to embark for Turkish-ruled Palestine in 1906, where she intends to paint the flowers of the Bible. Beatrice conceives of her spiritual and artistic pilgrimage as a return to the roots of Christianity and an escape from the repressive morality of Edwardian England.
The novel's conceit is that we learn of the fictional Beatrice's adventures in the Holy Land, and of her earlier experiences as a participant in bohemian London's Bloomsbury Group, through a series of letters she writes to Vanessa Stephen and through passages from her private diary. These writings have been surreptitiously collected and commented upon, in turn, by Dr. P. D. Morrison, a paragon of Victorian pedantry sent by Beatrice's family to investigate her apparent mental breakdown and refusal to return to England. The perspective afforded by Beatrice's intimate letters and her diary allows Megged to describe pre-state Palestine and the establishment of Jewish settlements there-an enterprise in which the author himself played a role after his emigration from Poland as a child in 1926-from the perspective of a religious and ideological outsider. Megged also devotes considerable energies to examining the aesthetic and philosophical challenge to Victorianism posed by the Bloomsbury Group's zealous iconoclasm. That stance is made to seem superficial or even hypocritical when juxtaposed against Beatrice's earnest Christian spirituality and her passion (presumably also Megged's) for the classics of Christian art: she makes reference to Dante (but not explicitly to his Beatrice), Giotto, Titian, El Greco, Milton, Bach, and others.
Megged's depiction of Beatrice as simultaneously attracted to European Christian iconography and the utopian political impulse of the Palestinian Jewish yishuv is a daring stroke of artistic creativity. It is also a subversive one. A fat woman (Beatrice repeatedly alludes to her ample body shape) who is a devout Christian pilgrim and a repressed lesbian counts as a pronounced antihero in Israeli fiction and hardly a typical champion of the Zionist credo, as Stanley Nash has pointed out.1
Beatrice's ideological commitments are surprising in another way as well. Her rejection of Bloomsbury bohemianism would be utterly puzzling, particularly given the group's notable tolerance of homosexuality, were it not that she has another, more complicated, aesthetic agenda. Her declared artistic ideals hark back to the work of the British religious painter William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), co-founder in 1849 of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Hunt, who visited Palestine tour times to paint biblical scenes in a style that came to be known as "religious realism," was influenced by the concept of typological symbolism put forward by the critic John Ruskin (1819-1900). In essence, Hunt's ideas promoted a style at once realistic and symbolically prefigurative, so that a solitary goat on the shore of the Dead Sea in his 1856 painting The Scapegoat was meant convey the desolation of the landscape realistically while symbolizing the suffering of Christ. Beatrice likewise says she will paint the Palestinian flowers, including the purportedly aphrodisiac mandrake flower, "as holy flowers, flowers of the soul" (p. 36), but her paintings and sketches are also intended to be botanically accurate.
Megged's preoccupation with aesthetics may be merely a matter of attention to historical verisimilitude, but it is not hard to imagine that he is slyly encouraging his readers to adopt an analogous aesthetic attitude. …