In a great twist, that Jewish thinker of long ago turns out to have been a woman named Ester Velasquez. The question becomes: Whose inheritance are these documents? The Jewish community of the present day, represented by Aaron Levy, or women intellectuals of any faith, like the non-Jewish Helen Watt? In exploring that question, The Weight of Ink weighs religious doctrine’s relationship to the divine, the role of scholarship in Jewish identity, and the meaning of life in Israel.
In her 1988 book A Poetics of Postmodernism, Linda Hutcheon called novels like this “historiographic metafiction.” Such novels display a special awareness of the relationship between history and literature. They happily exploit real events and lives from the past, unconcerned with to-the-letter accuracy. Kadish uses the plague and the Great Fire of London just as Leonardo Padura used Rembrandt in his recent book Heretics and E. L. Doctorow used Harry Houdini and Booker T. Washington in Ragtime. But in re-writing those real events, embedding a creative vision of the past in a contemporary fiction, novelists reveal how history is continually imbricated into the texture of our world. The past is not a conclusive “backstory” to our lives, but a powerful resource that opens out into every narrative, every fiction, every self.
Historiographic metafiction is an intrinsically postmodern form, by Hutcheon’s definition, and so it follows that these books have special pertinence to the moment of their writing. Extraordinarily, The Weight of Ink is the second major novel of 2017 to explore seventeenth-century Jewish culture in Amsterdam. Padura’s Heretics also dwells there, although his focus is on a Jewish assistant to Rembrandt, forbidden to make representative art by his religion.
Both novels touch on the crisis caused by Sabbatai Zevi, a seventeenth-century rabbi in the Ottoman Empire, claiming to be the Jewish Messiah. They both address the herem—or shunning—of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza at the age of 23, as well as the significance of the return of Jews to England.
Spinoza’s heresy over the nature of God—and what it meant for the Jewish community, then and now—is the symbolic core of The Weight of Ink, connecting the thinker behind the book’s trove of documents to the present-day characters studying them. In Heretics, Spinoza also served as the paradigmatic recipient of excommunication, an example of the terrible fate of those who run afoul of dogma. Other recent fiction on the subject includes Irvin Yalom’s 2012 The Spinoza Problem, which connected Spinoza’s life to the Nazi philosopher Alfred Rosenberg.