A Biblical Bloomsbury

“I must purify myself,” declares the tortured painter Beatrice Campbell-Bennett, the protagonist of Mandrakes from the Holy Land (Toby Press, $22.95). Set in Ottomancontrolled Palestine in 1906, this romantic epistolary novel about a woman’s battle with faith and sexuality plays with the polarities between Judaism and Christianity, corruption and chastity, nature and society, body and mind. Thanks to Sondra Silverston’s fluid rendering of Aharon Megged‘s 1998 novel Dudaim min ha-Aretz ha-Kedoshah, English-reading fans of Hebrew literature now have access to this provocative portrait, Through Beatrice’s wideopen eyes, we encounter Palestine in the first decade of the twentieth century, meeting such famous historical figures as the Aaronsohn family of Zikhron Ya’akov along the way.

The purpose of Beatrice’s journey to Palestine is ostensibly to find and paint the mandrake, the famous aphrodisiacal flower at the center of the Biblical dispute between the jealous sisters Leah and Rachel. As we accompany Beatrice on her horseback trek around the country, it becomes increasingly clear that she has actually fled England in order to escape her over-whelming sexual attraction to Vanessa Stephen, sister of Virginia Woolf Megged casts Beatrice as a member of Woolf’s exclusive Bloomsbury group, and the gatherings of this London avant-garde flicker in the background and contrast starkly with the rustic and often brutal surroundings Beatrice encounters in her travels. This brutality culminates in two rapes, by her Arab guide and a Russian Jewish immigrant, which are the source of her mental deterioration. Towards the novel’s end, Beatrice calls Palestine “mad” and a “male, violent country.” Her initial idealization of the Holy Land as “the source of purity” has given way to her recognition of its culpability in her defilement.

Part travelogue, part Christian confession, part psychoanalytic case study. Mandrakes is initially striking because of its unusual form. We learn Beatrice’s story from text that is assembled by one Dr P. D. Morrison, who has been dispatched from England to Palestine by Beatrice’s family to treat her apparent madness. Letters from Beatrice to Vanessa are arranged in chronological order and interspersed with Beatrice’s journal entries, stolen by Dr Morrison. The psychologist’s commentaries (ranging from pompous ruminations to absurd accusations of “theopathic hysteria”) appear periodically in footnotes at the bottom of the page. The resulting stitched-together narrative often functions like a mystery novel: since we are told from the start that Beatrice has lost her mind, we search for clues as to how and why this has happened.

Like Foiglman, Megged’s 1987 novel about a Yiddish poet’s entanglement with an Israeli historian. Mandrakes from the Holy Land is a tale of obsession. With its dramatic plot about the violation of an English woman traveling in the East and its use of the name Aziz, Mandrakes also evokes A Passage to India by E.M. Forster, another associate of the Bloomsbury group. Whether Megged is deliberately parodying or simply referencing the conventions of the colonial novel is debatable, but Mandrakes betrays an unmistakable urge to explore the religious and cultural tropes that Western culture imposed upon the East. Everything Beatrice sees is “so biblical,” from luscious vineyards to a veiled woman who looks “like Rebecca astride a camel on her way from Haran to Canaan.” Beatrice classifies the people she sees according to biblical chapter and verse, just as she categorizes the flowers she collects on her journey. The great achievement of Megged’s novel is to expose this mindset while extending sympathy to his suffering protagonist, bringing the harsh sunlight of his writing to bear upon the assumption that finding a solution to mutual mistrust and brutality between peoples will be as easy as finding a biblical love-flower in the holy land.

Hannah S. Pressman is a doctoral candidate in modern Hebrew literature at New York University.