Jewish Rage and The Day of Atonement
David Liss's Novel Succeeds Where Quentin Tarantino's Movie Failed
David Liss has a knack for creating characters forged in adversity. His protagonists - often, though not always, Jewish men - inhabit historical fiction as immersive and fully-realized as any Hollywood period piece. Whether confronted by depraved cops, corrupt businessmen, or ruthless Inquisitors, a Lissian hero always rises to the occasion with wit, grit, and a perverse compulsion to do the right thing, no matter the cost.
That sense of moral obligation is at the heart of all Liss's stories, and the fact that his characters are usually pitted against authority figures, rather than conventional criminals, lends them a sense of maturity that is often missing from the tiresomely lock-step world of popular fiction. You'll find no facile cops-and-robbers scenarios in a David Liss book. Rather than toeing a crisp line between black and white, his heroes generally spend at least a hundred pages struggling with confusing shades of gray, both in their circumstances and within themselves, before being granted sufficient clarity to illuminate their way forward.
Sebastian Foxx, the 18th century anti-hero and narrator of "The Day of Atonement," starts off at a somewhat darker shade of gray than the typical Liss protagonist. Driven by hatred, survivor's guilt, and an anger so powerful it has consumed his ability to feel fear, Foxx sets off on a Punisher-like quest to murder the Inquisitor that shattered his childhood.
The title, "The Day of Atonement," refers to the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, on which Jews fast, pray, and ask forgiveness for the transgressions of the past year. This will strike Christian readers as reminiscent of the Sacrament of Penance. However, as Foxx points out in the book, "For sins of one man against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with each other." In Jewish tradition, God will forgive you of your sins against Him without stipulation, but before He forgives you of your sins against other people, you must first seek out those you have wronged, and ask their forgiveness. This responsibility figures heavily in the plot, as Foxx grapples with the often-unintended consequences of his actions.
As part of the Yom Kippur tradition, Jews not only account for the suffering they have caused, but also the suffering God has permitted to occur. During Eleh Ezkerah ("Those I Recall"), a deeply moving and somewhat controversial portion of the Yom Kippur service, Jews reflect on the martyrdom of ten Rabbis tortured and murdered by the Romans, as well as the more modern atrocities of the Inquisition, European pogroms, and the Holocaust.
For most Jews today, the horrors of anti-Semitic persecution are uncomfortable historical facts. For Sebastian Foxx, they are very personal. The grief and fury that a modern Jew might feel during the Eleh Ezkerah service is his constant companion, and, indeed, the fuel that drives him inexorably onward.
Set primarily in the Lisbon of 1754, Foxx inhabits a Portugal still darkened by the shadow of the all-powerful Inquisition. While thieves and brigands prey with impunity on the populace, black-robed priests and their heavily-armed soldiers roam the streets, eager for any pretext to arrest an innocent.
As the story opens, Foxx and his family are "New Christians" - descendants of Jews that were forcibly converted to Christianity, but barred from intermarrying with the Old Christian population. Over time, these "New Christians" have lost all sense of Jewish identity and culture, but are still routinely targeted for extortion by the Inquisition, which lines its pockets by confiscating the property of anyone suspected of heresy or "Judaizing." Against this backdrop, Foxx's simple quest for revenge sprouts into a tangled thicket of shifting alliances, enmities and betrayal.
One of the strengths of David Liss's writing is his ability to weave unspoken parallels between the past and the present into the fabric of his books. The omnipresent and unaccountable Inquisition, to whom accusation is equivalent to guilt, is reminiscent of our own Internet, on which lives are destroyed daily by lies, gossip and invasions of privacy. The Inquisitors themselves, who are free to arrest, detain, and execute anyone at any time, may strike the contemporary reader as cut from the same cloth as the legions of TSA, DEA, DHS, FBI and other government-sanctioned agents who have much the same powers, even down to the modern "civil forfeiture" laws that allow police departments to seize and spend a person's money based on the suspicion of wrong-doing, even if none is ever proven.
Sadly, it may not be the constant fear and paranoia of Lisbon's New Christian population that seems foreign to today's reader, but the notion that Sebastian Foxx and his associates are occasionally able to speak freely, meet privately, and avoid detection by the authorities. It is uncomfortably clear that, had the Inquisition been armed with today's surveillance apparatus, escape would have been utterly impossible.
In the book, Sebastian Foxx is a skilled fighter, equally adept with both fists and blades. Once he undertakes his mission in earnest, it is not long before blood begins to spill. In the sense that the narrative is a fantasy of Jewish revenge, it is reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino's 2009 film, "Inglourious Basterds." However, unlike "Basterds" (in which Tarantino appropriated Jewish rage in much the same way he appropriated black rage in 2012's "Django Unchained"), "The Day of Atonement" is the product of a Jewish author, and therefore conveys a genuinely Jewish perspective on anger and retribution.
While Tarantino makes a genuine effort to understand how the Jewish or African-American characters in his gory melodramas might feel, he is still an outsider looking in. The heroes of "Inglourious Basterds" never question the morality of butchering Nazis. In contrast, Sebastian Foxx agonizes over the violence he commits, constantly searching for reasons to show mercy even to the most unworthy. This, in a nutshell, is the difference between the paper-thin monsters of a paint-by-numbers revenge fantasy like "Inglourious Basterds" and the complex antagonists in a thoughtful and satisfying narrative like "The Day of Atonement."
It has been said that the secret to pleasing an audience is to give them what they want, but not in the way they expect it. David Liss delivers this, in spades. Although "The Day of Atonement" is not a "whodunit" mystery, it still delivers unexpected twists, turns and surprises. More importantly, it is a gripping and enjoyable yarn, full of three-dimensional characters making their imperfect way through a menacing and believable historical landscape - albeit one that bears a sometimes unflattering resemblance to our own.