Minotaur Paperback – Oct 1 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
A major Cold War hit in the U.K. (a blurb from Graham Greene!), this 1981 novel gets much of its bite from the reputation of the Israeli spy network, of which its protagonist is a major, covert player. A melancholic 41, he's married and on a mission in London when, on a bus, he sees a girl of 17 or so with a ribbon tied just so in her hair. When she turns in profile and he sees her features, he is instantly smitten. Using his expertise, he gets Thea's name and address, and begins writing to her and gives her a way of getting letters to him. They correspond for seven years, both revealing extremely high levels of cultivation, until her engagement to a man her age, G.R., threatens the relationship. The protagonist deals with him, or so it seems, accordingly. Her next lover, a few years later, meets a similar fate. As it comes time for our man to finally reveal himself to Thea, his job may prove a final impediment. After the denouement, his identity is traced in flashbacks that recapitulate the history of Israel and a particular sort of early immigrant's experience there. Tammuz has real insight into obsessive, star-crossed love, but the prose throughout is stiff and dated. This suspenseful love story really requires pre-Oslo Israeli and bipolar geopolitics as its background noise. (Oct.)
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“A novel about the expectations and compromises that humans create for themselves . . . Very much in the manner of William Faulkner and Lawrence Durrell.” —The New York Times
"With echoes of Kafka and Conrad, Israeli novelist Tammuz has fashioned a provocative, spare, slow-to-unfold mystery of character." — Kirkus Review
“If the doomed atmosphere that hovers over the romances in Greene and Le Carré is present in Minotaur, so is a flavor that can only be described as more continental, and prose more sensuous than fits into the schemes of those two writers.” —Boston Phoenix --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Two young women board the bus. They sit in front of him and he notices that the girl seated on the left is lovely, with her sleek copper-colored hair, "gathered at the nape of her neck with a black velvet ribbon, tied in a cross-shaped bow." Her eyes are deep brown and her coloring and complexion remind him of his mother's - fair with a pink bloom. As a Mossad agent, Alexander knows how to find the details of her life...and he does so. Her name is Thea and she is seventeen, twenty-four years younger than he. Alexander has devoted his entire life to "tough, disagreeable work, because he needed to love." His work, which is a "series of surmises, assumptions and risks," provides him with the means to distract himself from the emptiness he feels - the sense of otherness he finds within. Perhaps he is the Minotaur within the maze of his long repressed emotions. (Too symbolic for me!). Now he knows, he loves Thea. For the first time in forty-one years, he feels love and need.
Abramov writes to Thea from his hotel room. He tells her that he loves her...that he has loved her all of his life. She doesn't know him but she "will always belong to him." He writes that he has acted as he has throughout his life because he was unaware he had choices. He didn't know he would ever meet her. And now that he has seen her, it is too late. His path is chosen and he cannot deviate from it. "There has been an accident, some sort of discrepancy in birth dates," he sadly explains. Along with his letter, he sends Thea a parcel containing a record, music he knows she likes, and asks her to play it the following Sunday at precisely 1700 hours. He will do the same in his hotel room. The two will be listening to the same music at the same time and this will be their first meeting. He cannot reveal his identity to her, else he blow his cover.
Initially, Alexander does not give Thea an opportunity to write back, nor does he know if she would even consider doing so. But eventually, he gives her a "drop off" place where she can leave her letters should she choose to respond. She does. And oddly, she complies with all Alexander's convoluted instructions without question. Thus begins a correspondence which will last for decades. Thousands of letters are accumulated. Their romance becomes stronger and more obsessive than any real flesh and blood relationship.
The narrative is related from the points of view of three different men, all connected by their love for Thea, who also narrates part of the storyline. Abramov, the spy, plays a central role, with his clandestine relationship with her. His love of music and the Mediterranean culture, flesh out his character. The book's final segment is an account of Abramov's childhood in Palestine - his life in a pre-WWII Jewish settlement.
I was somewhat disappointed by "The Minotaur." The novel does not remind me at all of Graham Greene's or Lawrence Durrell's brilliant writing, as some English critics have suggested. Perhaps it is the translation which makes the prose awkward at times. I also found the initial chapters to be slow, and fairly ridiculous...overly sentimental. I have a good imagination and enjoy fantasy, but just cannot conceive of a girl or woman who would respond with so much enthusiasm to an obvious stalker, and feel no fear or menace. I would be at the police station within minutes of receiving the first letter.
The two other men who become involved with Thea over the years are somewhat interesting, but their characters are not strong enough to sustain the narrative. I wouldn't classify "The Minotaur" as a spy novel. It is too quiet and contemplative. There are no twists and turns, no suspense, and frankly, there is little love in this supposed love story. It is more a novel about obsession. I give it a 3 Star rating because reading this book wasn't a total waste of time and I did enjoy parts of it. Honestly, however, I will not go out of my way to recommend it. There are just too many really good books out there to read....so why waste time on this one?
Author Benjamin Tammuz was born in Soviet Russia. When he was five years old, he immigrated with his parents to Israel, where he contributed to Israeli culture as a novelist, journalist, critic, painter, and sculptor. He was on the editorial board of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Five of his books have been translated into English, including this one.
I haven't even finished it, but I couldn't wait to recommend it. More later...
This book still haunts me. I loaned it to a friend who said she didn't know why it wasn't taught in college. It's that beautiful, both structurally and thematically. I got excited and bought the DVD of the movie based on Minataur but can't bring myself to watch it, for fear of breaking the spell of the novel. And I can't bring myself to write a more detailed review for the same reason. Maybe it's just as well that it isn't taught in college. (To the best of my knowledge.)
Minotaur is a cerebral love story that both attracts and repels. The central plot is one of an instant, obsessive and life-long love, and this attracts with its romantic obsession. Yet its hero, cold-blooded and calculating even while infatuated, seems to exist without a heart beat.
The novel falls into four sections, each written from the point of view of one of the three principle male characters. Initial obscurity about how each part connects to the others slowly turns into illumination. The narrative moves back and forth, and from side to side, looping and repeating itself, until finally clicking shut on the last page, not, however with a clear resolution, but with a final unanswered question about the heroine, leaving the reader suspended. If this summary sounds abstract, it is meant to be. The narrative legerdemain and structural sophistication are far more interesting than the plot and the characters.
The main character is Alexander Abramov, Israeli land-owner and intelligence agent. He is the one smitten with love for a much younger woman, whom he sees quite by chance one day on a London bus, and with whom he communicates thereafter only by anonymous letters. For the plot to be credible one has to believe that the young woman, Thea, will reciprocate and become almost as obsessed as the man. She does, but even if one does not believe in this eventuality, the idea still serves as a suggestive hypothesis that yields an intriguing, and often violent, tale. There is murder, marital abandonment, the paying off of an unwanted mistress, growing up in Israel between and after the world wars, an attempt by the hero to explain life in terms of an opaque theory of the three circles of music, and the title's hint of labyrinthine maze. If anything unifies these disparate ingredients it is the mind of Abramov, the mind of an intelligence agent. For him, ordinary reality is simply there to be manipulated and coerced, for whom the only escape, the only chance for higher emotional and imaginative fulfillment, is in the world of mental fantasy. Thea is that fantasy.
There is another factor that gives Minotaur it cool surface: it is a translation (from the Hebrew). Like so many translations, the language lacks an idiomatic pulse. It is always clear, but like a piano with a cloth stuffed into its strings, its sound is dampened and muffled. The notes are correct, while the tone is dead. Perhaps this is a virtue in a novel whose skills are so self-consciously detached.