According to Her (2022)

Polish title: Według niej (2004)
By: Maciej Nawariak (Maciej Hen)
Translated by: Anna Blasiak
Published by: Holland House Books
Originally published by: Wydawnictwo Dues

Mariamne is an old Jewish peasant woman from Galilee. She is visited by a young Greek man who came to see her to talk about her late son. Mariamne spins her story in a colourful and blunt language of a simple, old woman of natural intelligence and dry sense of humour. In her eyes Judas was the nicest friend of her son’s. She can’t forgive John the Baptist for stealing the object of young Hoshi’s love or, years later, finding it hard to conceal his jealousy of Yehoshua’s growing popularity. According to her Hoshi didn’t see himself as a god or a saviour of the entire humankind, or even a prophet or a religious reformer – he thought of himself first and foremost as a doctor and perhaps a little bit of a folk sage.


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Zielony Balonik book club notes:

A few thoughts on According to Her by Jenny Robertson

I read about Maciej Hen online before I approached the book and was interested to learn that he was the son of Józef Hen, whose Nowolipe Street we had read recently. The interview with the younger Hen described his exploration of Judaism – the results are all too plainly and copiously seen in his book.

I approached it with an open mind but quickly felt pretty fed up. ‘Third-rate,’ I decided. The monologue was simply monotonous, the prose boring, no characterisation to speak of. In fact, and perhaps not surprisingly, the Judas character was more interesting than Hoshi, and the one bit of drama was his love affair with a rejected girl in Pilate’s household.

‘Don’t tell, show.’ This golden rule of storytelling just didn’t happen, it was all telling, hence the flat characters and total lack of emotion. I really didn’t want to finish the book, skipped through it, and then dutifully re-read it, with just a bit of skipping, but the second read didn’t improve. It may be that the translation wasn’t that good. I detected hints of Polish English and really quarrelled with the failure to use that tense we’re always told to avoid in children’s fiction: the pluperfect. Yet it’s another string to the harp that makes mellifluous prose.

The Mary character was quite frankly boring, a crabbit old wifie. I couldn’t believe in her at all. Indeed her voice was more that of a nineteenth or early twentieth century shtetl woman, no harm in that in the right context, but this was meant to be a peasant girl/woman in first century Palestine who may well have been illiterate and I’m sure wouldn’t have had a wide knowledge of the complex ins and outs of her faith. Why on earth did he make her a Pharisee?

Several anachronisms popped in: the bar mitzvah apparently originated in France in the thirteenth century, the feast of Purim certainly wasn’t kept in the first century and although the Biblical command was to remove leaven from the house at Passover, I can’t think of a single example in Scripture of anyone going to a huge palaver to get rid of every trace of the chametz.

Novels around the Gospel story are difficult. You can go for a conventional, perhaps pious approach, you can try to be radical, as Hen is doing, you can choose a minor character or invent an onlooker. It didn’t work for me and I couldn’t understand why it deserved a translation.


Some further thoughts by Krystyna Szumelukowa

I started to read this book on Mother’s Day, 19 March 2023, but I was immediately puzzled by the dedication “To the shade of my mother.” Not knowing the Polish original, I am unsure as to what Maciej Hen is really trying to say here. As shade casts a shadow; it could be protection, as if a sunshade; or a shadowy memory; or that mother is always in the background? I do not know. The mother of Hoshi is presented as a monologue. A different way of writing a historical fiction. Intriguing but the novelty of this approach wore off for me about two thirds of the way through the book. The one-sided conversation with the young Greek visitor (Maciej Hen?) brings out some quirkiness of the mother’s language which again may also be a result of translation from the Polish. The constant use of the word “Dearie” to the young man seemed so odd to me, to the point of irritation. I am only familiar with the word “dearie” being used as “dearie me” to express “sad surprise” and not as a form of address to a stranger.

I had a good sense of the life of the mother and the time and place of her life. And how the Judaic belief system provided the societal framework. For those interested in the minutiae, timely relevance and accuracy, or not, of Jewish customs and practices the book provides all of these. For those not so knowledgeable a glossary of terms might be useful. Some of these I presume were borne out of the conditions of the time such as the need for cleanliness being best served by bathing in the rivers in a warm climate. Young men needing to find a purpose in life in a country under foreign occupation I saw as an important thread as much as the strict societal conditions which were imposed on young men and women, by their own families and tribes. Hoshi encountered both.

Hoshi took a “gap year” which lasted 15 years and communication and information to his mother was inevitably sparse as travel was by donkey or by boat, but he travelled widely and stayed for some time in the land of Philo the monkey (presumably India). As a healer he became a trusted itinerant whose return to his homeland came at a time of his maturity. All this makes good sense. The stories of his relationships with fellow followers and close friends as described by the mother seem to be confused but it perhaps simply reflects how memory is not only selective but can play its tricks. The momentum which builds then ended in tragedy for these “dissidents of their times”. The love and grief of motherhood is well told and resonates throughout humanity, before and after Hoshi’s time.

Sage words and practices appeared in the book; but were not revelatory. Group meditations outdoors in a warm and sunny climate; mind over matter to relieve anxiety; herbal medicines; massage therapies; the light within; to be shown the way rather than led; and the price of freedom are a few examples.

Motherhood is given a voice in this fictional world which attempts to mirrors an interpretation of the life and times of Jesus, who was adopted as the Messiah by Christianity in later years. In Poland this is a powerful theme as in the 20th century mothers raised sons to be killed in war. They did not return.


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