Arts & Culture

All is Metaphor

Tamar D. Yellin is the author of Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes. She is guest-blogging on Jewcy this week, and this is her 2nd post. Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes is not a book about the ten lost … Read More

By / October 27, 2009

Tamar D. Yellin is the author of Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes. She is guest-blogging on Jewcy this week, and this is her 2nd post.

Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes is not a book about the ten lost tribes so much as a study of lostness, longing and belonging. Nor is it an autobiographical book except insofar as it deals with themes and emotions which, for various reasons, have had a dominant place in my life.

It is true that, at the novel’s opening, the narrator’s father is engaged in researching the lost tribes and this serves as a convenient means of introducing the metaphor against which the ten portraits are suspended. The Jew as metaphor is, after all, an old and trusted literary device (I would cite the Bible as its first example). But what mattered to me most in writing this book was the portrayal of ten human beings, each suffering their own particular form of exile, and that they come alive for the reader in all the poignancy of their predicament.

The narrator who travels through life from childhood to maturity encountering each of these personalities in turn is neither named nor assigned a gender. This was a deliberate decision on my part, and for two reasons. First of all, it is not the character and identity of the narrator which matter; the narrator is no more than an observer through whom we too encounter this succession of lost souls. Secondly, through keeping the narrator in a sense both characterless and identityless, I wanted to make a deeper point about our own essential unknowability both to ourselves and others.

If any autobiography is present in the book, it is only in the most oblique and subtle form. For example, I told my editor here at Jewcy that the fifth tale, Gad, is the most autobiographical of them all, yet I doubt whether even my closest friends and family would know it. The story tells of a woman who, in her youth, leaves her home in the South and travels to a northern port with the intention of leaving the country. Forty years later she is still living in the port, never having summoned the courage to set sail on her grand adventure. Several times a year she rides the train back and forth between her old home in the South and her place in the North; she never feels settled; when she reaches one she immediately longs to be in the other. The only time she is at peace is when she is riding the train.

The terms “South” and “North” have quite different connotations here in the UK from those they possess in the US. Here, South means London, the Home Counties, prosperity, better weather and the seat of power. North means provincial, industrial (or decayed industrial), bleak uplands and wild weather. When I left my home city of Leeds to live in the high moors of the Pennines, I was enacting an escape from my own version of “South” to head “North,” but I was also setting up a lifelong tug-of-war within myself between the call of the wild and the allure of the city (apart from anything else, the city meant the Jewish community; there are very few Jews out here). I embodied this dilemma within my protagonist, though I have never, like her, shuttled back and forth on the train between London and Yorkshire with a basket of goodies; but I have done so spiritually.

As for her original intention, never fulfilled, to take ship for the horizon: in the autobiographical sense this too must be read as metaphor. The ship I intended taking was no physical one… So far as the subject of autobiography in fiction is concerned I cannot express it better than Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

“But isn’t it true that an author can write only about himself? … The characters in my novels are my own unrealised possibilities … Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own “I” ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author’s confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.”