My Glorious Brothers, by Howard Fast
Fast and Loose
My Glorious Brothers.
by Howard Fast.
New York; Little, Brown. 280 pp. $2.75.
A historical novel can have two kinds of merit. Of these, the higher is that it should be an honest work of art in its own right. Failing that, it can be a conscientious popularization of history. My Glorious Brothers is neither. It is not without interest, however, as a symptom of certain trends in contemporary taste and politics.
The book is written in the form of the memoirs of Simon the Hasmonean, the last survivor of the five sons of Mattathias who together led the Jews of Palestine in their long and victorious war of independence against the Seleucid Syrian empire, in the second century BCE. It also includes a section that is supposed to be a report to the Roman Senate by a legate sent out to determine what manner of people the Jews are. Every gesture in the story staggers beneath the weight of heroic or tragic symbolism, the heroism of the heroes is equalled only by the villainy of the villains, and no chapter is without several ringing affirmations of the doctrine that resistance to tryants is obedience to God. If this confusion of Benjamin Franklin with Judas Maccabaeus were Fast’s only anachronism, we should be cheated of the joy of reading that the village teacher in Modin was named Lebel. How does it happen that a man presented as living two centuries before the destruction of the Second Temple, of Aramaic speech and Hebrew education, should be endowed with a characteristically Yiddish name, of German origin, from the East European pale of a few years ago? The explanation is this: many God-bearing Hebrew names end in el (Israel, Daniel); but el is also a Yiddish diminutive suffix. Fast fell into the trap. What better name for a melamed (that timeless phenomenon) than Lebel?
On the surface, the book is a tract to arouse admiration for a great national resistance to a foreign oppressor intent on wiping out the national culture; its real purpose is to make this respectable sentiment a vehicle of propaganda against American policy toward the Soviet Union. This Fast seeks to accomplish by putting in the mouth of his Roman legate, a sinister figure, expressions of hatred against the Jews (read “popular democrats”) because they represent a threat to the Roman “free slavery” system (read “American ‘free enterprise’”) and to “Western civilization” in general.
Of all this, the author is fully conscious. But there is more: the book gives evidence of emotions that Mr. Fast may not recognize in himself.
For one thing, My Glorious Brothers is a racist document. Over and over again, the Hellenized Syrians are contemptuously described as a mongrel rabble, vicious precisely because they are a mixed breed. The true Greeks would have been, in their time, good friends or worthy enemies of the Jews, because, like the Jews, they were of pure descent; the Syrian heirs to the Greek culture debased it and wallowed in perversion, because they were a hybrid mixture. Fast’s spokesman is particularly violent on this score against the mercenary soldiers of the Seleucid kings. Here his racist emotions have completely overthrown his formal proletarian ideology, since the military slaves were the most authentically proletarian element in Hellenistic society, doomed to servitude by the political and economic upheavals of their age. Their chief value, after military service, was to reproduce progeny for continued exploitation—and this, after all, is the basic meaning of the word “proletariat.”
Finally, the book breathes a love of bloodshed. It is more than the new redskin biting the dust on every other page of the dime-novel Western; it is the ferocity one finds in German and Soviet war films and novels. There are few chapters in My Glorious Brothers that do not show the Maccabees wading knee-deep in the blood of five thousand more Seleucid mercenaries. Alexander Nevsky hath slain his thousands, and Howard Fast his ten thousands.
We have, then, these seemingly disparate elements: proletarian and revolutionary sympathies, unconscious racism, love of violence. This has become an all too familiar combination in the past few years. We see it in the preference of radicals formerly contemptuous of Zionism for the Stem group over the moderate Left in Israel; we see it in the remarkable latitude some radicals allow themselves in uncomplicated hatred of Arabs; above all we see it in the crass worship of successful force by men whose former derision for the accomplishments of peaceful construction in Palestine has been turned to admiration only by spectacular military successes.
Fast has written the manifesto of this most recent and curious corruption of the radical ideal.