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Abraham und Isaak: Roman nach der Bibel. (Hungarian).

Laszlo Bito. Abraham und Isaak: Roman nach der Bibel Paul Karpati, tr. Herne, Germany Tibor Schafer. 2000. 305 pages ISBN 3-933337-21-6

LASZLO BITO IS a veritable polymath. He is a world-renowned scientist, recipient of many international prizes, among them the Proctor Medal, the highest award given for eye research (primarily for his path-breaking work in the treatment of glaucoma). Recently, having chosen an early retirement from Columbia University, where he was Professor of Ocular Physiology, Bito returned to the dreams of his youth and began to write fiction.

In his first novels, appearing in his native Hungarian, Bito addressed contemporary issues, focusing on life in Hungary during the first half of the twentieth century. After the defeat of the 1956 revolution, Bito (b. 1934) immigrated to the United States, where he completed his education and embarked on his scientific career. With latent autobiographical material in the text, Bito has created a body of novels that cannot be considered the work of a literary gentleman or the by-products of leisure hours. Building on the European narrative tradition of past centuries, Bito's fiction is thought-provoking, well structured, and, above all, an entertaining read.

His latest endeavors are more controversial, but no less remarkable: Bito decided to become God's ghostwriter and reinterpret some pivotal scenes from the Bible in the form of a trilogy. He has completed two volumes and is working on the third. The first, Abraham und Isaak, is the piece under review here. It has been so far published in Hungarian, English, German, Russian (appearing concurrently in Moscow and Minsk), and Slovak. French, Spanish, and Romanian translations are in progress. The same applies to the second volume, "The Teachings of Isaac," which is soon to appear in a number of translations. In the first two books, Bito is rethinking the philosophical and ethical ideas of Judaism and is preparing the path for his third book, a new vision of Jesus. Each volume is enjoyable as a separate entity. The trilogy is planned to encompass Bito's concept of man's role in creating his God, ancestors, prophets, and heroes.

In Abraham und Isaak, a novel with many characters, Abraham shares God's message with his people. While according to Jewish tenets, God at the last moment orders Abraham to spare his son's life (as opposed to the Christian God who permits the crucifixion of Jesus), in Bito's text, Omaan, Sarah's steward, is the one who stops Abraham's hand. This episode can be freely interpreted by the reader: Omaan too could be simply God's instrument, or, as a different option, man is a free agent; he alone will decide how he lives, dies, or kills. Thus, God is an instrument of man.

The core of the epic is constituted by the Judean patriarch's relation to his wives and his sons, Isaac and Ishmael, and their relationship with one another. Therefore, this interpretation of the Bible is not a celebration of divine revelation, but a record of human life and fantasy. Lively scenes of imagined plots on the biblical sites do not call for verifying their historicity. Bito wants the reader to consider the ethical message embedded in the text.

The second volume, "The Teachings of Isaac," is structured as a dialogue between Isaac and Esau, his firstborn. Here Esau is taught to accept a God who is no more powerful than he himself. The author is still working on the final volume, tentatively called "Isaac of Nazareth," which is conceived as an inner monologue of a lonely Jesus who recognizes the fact that his ultimate truth cannot be shared with anyone. The conclusions of the trilogy do not lead to religious or cultural nihilism, but instead steer the reader toward an open-ended, personal exploration and understanding of the fundamental values of Judaism and Christianity.

People of science have frequently excelled in fiction (Chekhov, Cronin, and Maugham, to mention but a few), while the stories of the Bible have consistently challenged the talents of writers, among them such giants as Thomas Mann. Jesus too has had a very large press, from J. E. Renan to Thomas Cahill's recently published, excellent Desire of the Everlasting Hills. Laszlo Bito is surely in good company, and the reader who has enjoyed Abraham und Isaak is in for more quality treats, as the next parts of the trilogy are made available.
Marianna D. Birnbaum
University of California, Los Angeles
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Author:Birnbaum, Marianna D.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Words:730
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