Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Preservationist by David Maine

This was a delightful little book, a clever, fresh, humor-infused retelling of the story of Noah's Ark, without the preachiness or solemnity that sometimes mar novels set in Biblical times. The cast of characters come alive as vibrantly human, with all their faults and foibles. There is Noe (Noah), the stern, unyielding patriarch; The Wife, whose name has been forgotten, a fatalistic, pragmatic woman; and their three sons: obedient, superstitious Sem; grumpy, gloomy, sullen but sensible Cham, who, by a fortuitous coincidence just happens to be a shipbuilder; and snickering, slugabed, horny teenager Japeth who tries to avoid work as if it were the plague. The boys' wives are equally individual: buxom, brown-skinned, barren Bera, whose father sold her into slavery as a child; tall, albino-fair Ilya, an educated woman, particularly knowledgeable about cosmology, astronomy, weather patterns, and the natural sciences, from a land of snow and goddess-worshiping tribes ruled by matriarchs; and petite and timid Mirn a shy, soft-spoken teenager usually dismissed as having an empty head but a lovely body.

The story begins when 600 year old Noe comes home late for supper and announces to his long-suffering wife "I must build a boat," despite their being nowhere remotely near the sea. While out in the mustard field God spoke to Noe and informed him that because the world has become riddled with sin and corruption on such a rampant, widespread scale He has decided to destroy it with a great flood and start over fresh. And he wants Noe and his family to survive and repopulate the world with people and animals. In order to do this Noe must build an ark, a great ship, 300 cubits long, by 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits tall, and fill it with breeding pairs of every species of animal from the tiniest to the towering.

After years of putting up with Noah and his special relationship with God, his wife has learned to just nod and go with the flow. And so, trusting God to provide, Noe sets about making God's words a reality.

While he and sons labor to construct this titanic floating barnyard, their wives are given the onerous task of collecting the necessary animals; the non-domestic varieties not readily at hand.

Bera journeys back to her homeland where she finds her estranged father dying; repenting selling his daughter into slavery, he makes her a gift of his private menagerie, which includes such exotic specimens as apes of all sorts, including monkeys and baboons, various jungle cats, crocodiles, hippos, gazelles, elephants, ostriches, anteaters, rhinos, armadillos, giraffes, and zebras. As she is on the verge of departing, Bera receives an even more precious gift, a pair of newborn twins, a boy and girl, whose mother died in childbirth, leading their grief-stricken father to despise them. A miracle then occurs, the barren Bera's breasts begin to spout milk to provide her newly acquired children with sustenance.

Impersonating a priestess of Oda, a blood-drinking goddess, to save herself from rape and enlist the aid of a group of wolfskin-clad barbarains, Ilya returns to the northlands where she was born and brings back a fine collection of foxes, wolves, bears, and deer.

Mirn stays close to home, to help her mother-in-law and gather the little creatures that often provoke shudders of revulsion and are generally regarded as pests--insects, snakes, and rodents.

Meanwhile, a crowd gathers, setting up temporary quarters in hastily constructed shanties, to gape, gawk, and jeer at the great boat rising out of the desert sands. They heckle and laugh at Noe, dismissing him as a crackpot, and touched in the head, but when the rains begin and the flood waters steadily rise they quickly change their tune. Then it is Noe's turn to gloat and heckle them. Even the sight of innocent children condemned to a watery death fails to tug at his heartstrings. The world is being washed clean of sin and corruption and Noe and his family are the chosen ones, privileged to start anew with a clean-wiped slate, and Noe feels only joy and honored to be chosen by God.

For forty days and forty nights they suffer the ceaselessly falling rains and rocking waves. Noe likens Hell to their existence belowdecks. In the close quarters of the family cabin, hemmed in by animals on all sides; animals to the right and left of them, animals above and below them, the odors of dung and urine, both human and animal, pervade and mingle with the miasma of unwashed bodies, vomit, smoke from the cookstove, and the scent of sex when the young couples take to rutting away their boredom.

Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character, and we see how their ordeal upon the raging floodwaters changes and affects them. The philosophical Ilya thinks often of the nonbelievers, especially the innocent children who died, and wonders "Why them and not me?" Bera ponders "Why did God do it?" Each person has a different answer to this question, no two are alike, and in the end it all boils down to "The Lord does what He wants, when He wants to;" any search for deeper or greater meaning is, in the end,just theological debate.

The youngest son, Japeth, sums it up best with his oft repeated words: "We'll have a Hell of a story for the grandkids!" And this reader, for one, thinks he's right; David Maine's The Preservationist is a great new spin on an old, old tale.

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