Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I Am The Clay by Chaim Potok

I have read several books by Chaim Potok--The Chosen, In The Beginning and My Name is Asher Lev. They were all excellent books and have firmly established Potok on my list of Authors I Think Are Worth Reading.

I have to establish that first, before I say that this book didn't live up to the others I've read. Chaim Potok is Jewish, and the other books I've read are set in the American Jewish community. When he writes, his characters are excellent, but they are also set in relief against the Jewish background, and the effect is very authentic.

The story in I Am The Clay is set in Korea (where Potok served as a chaplain during the Koren War), and the characters are Korean. An older man and wife are fleeing, with thousands of others, from the on-coming Chinese army. Along the way, the woman rescues an injured, orphaned boy. Her husband begrudges the effort and food required for his care, but as they live and work and travel and suffer and grieve together, the bonds of family are forged.

However, Potok really doesn't know the Korean culture from the inside in the same way that he knows Jewish culture, and so the effect is rather flat. This book didn't have the same depth, the same rich, authentic flavor that his Jewish-related books did. I noticed from the first chapters that the writing seemed different--sparser and plainer than I remember Potok being, with far less attention to the details. He also used a technique that I found a little odd. That is, he told the thought processes of various characters in one flowing paragraph, with nothing to mark the switch from one to another.

Mountain air affects the eyes, Uncle said, and the heart and lungs, you see the whole world in a different way. And now so we found the boy and came all this way only to die here in these mountains what kind of spirits are you to do such a thing to an old woman there is no strength left in me even for anger but if there were how I would hate you. And if I had not run away if I had stayed maybe someone would have been alive and and I could have lived with them but no one was alive and Badooki had also run away and and I would have died in those flames everything was burning the house the air the bodies and and and look all the stars everywhere stars the ice on the mountains reflecting the stars in the sky and in the snow stars and stars.

Stream-of-consciousness is always a little difficult to read, but in that paragraph, you are dipping into three different streams.

I'm a little disappointed that what may be the only Potok novel I'll read this year wasn't one of his best, but that won't stop me from reading more of his work in the future. Toward the end of the book, the boy meets a Jewish chaplain, and I suspect that is Potok's cameo appearance in his own novel. I actually think that if he had written this book differently--if he had written about the Korean refugees as an outsider looking on, instead of trying to write as if from the inside, it would have been a better story.


At 5:54 PM , Blogger Amy said...

I read Davida's Harp (?) years ago and liked it. Right now I can't think of another Potok novel I've read, but I need to change that. Thanks for a good review and a warning, of sorts, to stick to his Jewish stories.

At 9:17 PM , Blogger Framed said...

I've always enjoyed Potok's works, but they have been based on his Jewish background. He does those beautifully.


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