Albion-Andalus Books (February 24, 2016) ISBN 978-0-692-63307-6
His Hundred Years
Reviewed by Judith Roumani*
“One other matter. It pertains to the word picaresque which . . . I mentioned thinking about in reference to my own novel, His Hundred Years.”1
Is this a picaresque novel? Is its hero a pícaro?
His Hundred Years takes us inside the mind and life story of a most unusual man (in American terms), a Turkish Jew whose life spans a century. His optimistic, entrepreneurial approach to life leads him to overcome starvation and war in Turkey, migrate to the United States, take care of his mother and extended and nuclear family, build up a phenomenally successful career, and make a success of the even greater challenge of retirement. We cannot help but admire the character and even more how the highly educated and articulate author (an English professor) gets into the mind of a man who had only two years of schooling but, because of his exposure in Turkey, the crossroads of so many cultures, can speak five or six languages, none of them perfectly, but enough to be persuasive and charming.
It is his empathy for just about anyone he meets that evokes a positive response and enables the hero to become the most successful insurance agent in the history of his company. After his enforced retirement he bounces back as a ‘fixer’ arranging loans and deals for companies and countries all over the world: he does not mind that only one of his deals ever goes through, because he has a great time travelling and meeting a variety of people over fifteen years of his second career. Only his wife is constantly resentful and angry with him, due to her own frustrated ambitions, and for him this woman’s attacks are baffling. As an old-fashioned husband, he prides himself on being a good provider. We never do hear of his death, presumably at the age of one hundred, but in the last scene his ninety-seven year-old widow has lost all of her resentment at her husband.
Though it might not sound like a very dramatic plot—a happy and successful man reaches the age of one hundred—this novel (or ‘tale’ as the author calls it) is fascinating for its glimpse into the mind of a barely educated man who makes himself in a totally alien society. The dramas in the life of a Jew from Turkey, where at the beginning of the twentieth century there was never enough to eat, are not small, though, and require extraordinary qualities. His father has fled Canakkale to hide in the anonymity of Istanbul, because for Jews to be conscripted into the army is the equivalent of death. The boy and his mother become business partners, she making shirts and he selling them, and also needles, buttons and other sewing needs, and the boy, impelled by hunger, has one enterprising idea after another. These successes in supporting his family give him confidence and forge a strong bond with his mother. In middle age, he remembers that she always laughed, even in situations of starvation, and that she inspired his optimistic attitude to life. Thus when his sister and rest of the family decree that the semi-senile mother must be sent to a hospital, where she passes away shortly after (it would have been impossible to impose the mother on his own resentful wife) our businessman son is heartbroken. He remembers his mother’s motto, “Always forward, never look back” but feels the injustice to her in her last days as his own pain, a dagger in his own heart.
Our hero, though, does indeed follow his mother’s advice, and builds one of the most beautiful things, an ethical and blessed life that spreads happiness. Something to be proud of.
Much of the novel, which won a Leapfrog Prize even in manuscript, is an internal third person monologue and the main character never actually has a name. He is “the boy” and then “the man” or “the insurance agent” as he fulfills various roles through life. Shalach Manot draws on some of the best traditions of modern experimental fiction. There are echoes of Stanley Sultan’s Rabbi, and of A. B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani, in the presentation of one side of a dialogue, like overhearing one side of a telephone conversation, a technique where the reader has to become an active participant in creating the novel.
More traditionally, this novel is heir in a sense to the original European tradition of the picaresque novel, rather appropriately in view of the hero’s ancestral origin in Spain, revealed in his occasional lapsing into Ladino/Judeo-Spanish. Indeed, the Spanish Jew, surviving by a thread, outside society, concealing his origins, has often been portrayed via the picaresque. However, the author herself described (email to me dated March 29, 2016) how in her view the novel is not truly picaresque and the character is not truly a pícaro :
I have been drawn to the word because of what this narrative form has meant to me, namely a short liberating episodic book about a struggling male character making his way through life by his wits. But what I've realized is that in another sense the word picaresque is inappropriate to use in connection with my book, because of a great difference in tone. My character does nothing horrendous, nor is he desperate, nor is he alone like Lazarillo. In fact he is actually a good man, making his way by his wits, it is true, but without the desperation and deep cynicism we correctly associate with the rogue at the center of the picaresque. In fact the opposite. And when he makes mistakes, they are not crimes, and besides he is punished for them in poignant ways that don't relate to the picaresque at all. So the picaresque was of value in my writing a Turkish Jewish peddler's tale, but mostly in ways having to do with novel form, and I would not use it to indicate the genre of my novel.
He does indeed pay dearly for two mistakes: the first is in marrying woman whose own frustrations at the lack of a career lead her to be constantly, deeply angry at her husband, leading ultimately to the abandoning of his beloved mother; the second is not really his own, but lies in his being reported as three years older than he actually is, so that he could get a job. This leads to a forced early retirement and no end of complications with both Turkish and American bureaucracy. Those in his family who did not emigrate to America, such as a sister obliged to take care of the elderly father back in Istanbul, have even greater frustrations and resentments, which he handles with great delicacy and kindness.
As the novel progresses through a century of one man’s life, we grow to know his mind intimately. The novel is most successful in this technique, and readers may run the risk of having to change their weekend plans, as it is highly likely they will not be able to put this novel down.
* Judith Roumani is the editor of Sephardic Horizons.
1. Email from Shalach Manot to Judith Roumani, March 29, 2016.