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Pilgermann (Novel, 1983)


He climbs a ladder to reach another man's wife and gives himself up to her beauty, but then Pilgermann descends into a mob of peasants inspired by the Pope to shed the blood of Jews. Alone on the cobblestones, mutilated and unmanned, he cries out to Israel, to the Lord his God, to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. He is answered instead by Jesus Christ: 'I'm the one you talk to from now on.' Every day is the Day of Reckoning and the judgement Christ brings is the start of straight action. Pilgermann hears a voice from within and becomes a pilgrim. Through time and war and Death itself, he makes his way along the road to Jerusalem, struggling to find God in the horror that surrounds him.

Detailed description: 

Narrated by the disembodied spirit or consciousness of Pilgermann, a European Jew, the novel opens with the newly castrated Pilgermann having a vision of Christ after being mutilated by a gentile mob for being caught sleeping with a merchant's wife. Christ tells Pilgermann that he must make his way to Jerusalem where he will meet with Sophia. Reluctantly, and in theory with nothing better to do, Pilgermann sets off. 

As Pilgermann travels across Europe he is joined by other characters, including his own Death which walks alongside him. Life in Europe is seen through a series of grotesque, Brueghel and Bosch-like images of horror, violence, degradation and death. Nevertheless Pilgermann continues, keeping his cool with a mixture of detachment, compassion and irony throughout. 

Half way across the Mediterranean his boat is ambushed by Pirates who sell him to a Muslim grandee in Antioch in Syria, Bembel Redzuk. Pilgermann and Bembel become friends, although never social equals (as a Jew Pilgermann can only ever be a dhimmi in Muslim society). Pilgermann conceives of, designs and builds an enormous Kabbalistic courtyard and tower with a patterned design on the floor for Bembel which rapidly takes on numinous power among the community, attracting the displeasure of the Islamic authorities. Things come to a head when Frankish Crusaders besiege Antioch. As it becomes increasingly clear that the city will fall, the Islamic authorities become more and more suspicious of non-Muslims and Pilgermann's life becomes increasingly threatened. Finally the city falls and Bembel and Pilgermann are killed fighting a Crusader, but not before Pilgermann has a vision of Jerusalem - which he is never destined to get to - and sees Sophia lying, dying among a pile of corpses after a Crusader massacre. [from Wikipedia]


Type of work: 
Year of first publication: 
Original publisher: 
Jonathan Cape

Review quotes: 

"What we have here--pirates, seductive pigs and violent battles to the contrary--is not so much a tale of adventure as a meditation on history, loss and grief, a dark treatise on the mysterious nature of things...a network of small interlocking essays on matters no less significant than mutability and mortality...merely remarkable."--Joel Cannaroe, front page, The New York Times Book Review

"Pilgermann does live, both as a character in a vivid moment of the historical past and as a living questing spirit. Hoban successfully creates a pilgrim who once traveled and who has not stopped. His novel is not an easy read, only a fascinating and rewarding one."--Paul Gray, Time

"A novel that is both Riddley Walker's complement and mirror image.... a direct approach to 'the living heart of mystery.'"--Harper's

"Superb ... Pilgermann is history, metaphysics, a tangle of mysteries, profound and simple"--Guardian 

"A strange and beautiful work, whose mysteries are worth contemplation. Pilgermann is that rare thing - a novel that can be read with profit more than once"--Evening Standard


To Esmé ...and after the fire a still small voice. I Kings 19:12
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