Spanning 1,000 years of European history, Gabi Gleichmann’s debut novel The Elixir of Immortality (Other Press) is a heart-wrenching epic that elegantly blends historical fact with flourishes of magical realism as it attempts to unravel the true meaning behind family, love, religion, and life itself. I had a chance to catch up with Mr. Gleichmann via phone on his recent trip to America. Unsurprisingly, we had a lot to talk about.
Aaron Westerman: The Elixir of Immortality is a novel that is steeped in almost 1,000 years of European history. Can you start by explaining a bit about your own personal history and background?
Gabi Gleichmann: I was born in Budapest, Hungary and was raised in a Jewish family. This was a great privilege, to live in a communist repression, in a dictatorship, because it taught you what’s important and what’s not. In a society where everything is forbidden, almost everything is very important. In a society where everything is allowed and you have access to everything people tend to forget about the importance of things, and therefore nothing is important.
My father was a diplomat and at the age of ten we moved to Sweden. This was in the 1960s and there was a lot of turbulence in Eastern Europe. The Czech development of liberalization was strangled and killed by Russian tanks and in Poland thousands of Jews were thrown out as scapegoats because the government couldn’t supply the people with enough food. This was when my parents decided not to go back to Hungary because they felt that the same things could happen there.
We stayed in Sweden where I studied philosophy and literature and at the age of 22 I started to write. Since then I’ve been a writer of literary criticisms, essays, reflections, and political pieces, but never fiction.
AW: So where does the idea for this particular book come from?
GG: One day my wife received a letter from her uncle who is an aristocrat living in a big castle and what he had sent us was a family tree. It showed that my wife’s maternal side had been living in Norway for 260 years and had made many significant contributions to society. One of them was a prime minister. One of them was a famous painter. So when I looked at this I was very impressed because I hadn’t really seen a family tree before. And of course I couldn’t ask about the past of my family because most of them had been killed in the holocaust. I realized that it was important for my children to have a background, so I wanted to give this gift to them by inventing a story. A history of the past.
AW: It’s an ambitious undertaking for a first novel.
GG: I have been close to people in and around literature my whole life so it was very normal for me to write something that was more ambitious then to write about my private life which seems to be the prevailing thing today. I wanted to examine what has happened in Europe from the perspective of a minority because minorities have always had hardships and problems. Also, today it seems that people are living in a kind of oblivion about the past and they forget about things. They want to live in an eternal present. But everything that happens in the present tense and the present time is of course linked to the past. I wanted to bring back a kind of consciousness and knowledge about that.
AW: The Spinoza history really starts in the 1100s when Moses first approaches and bestows upon Baruch the gift of keeping a great secret in exchange for 1,000 years of familial prosperity. Baruch however turns out to have strong homosexual leanings. Why was important to introduce the idea of homosexuality into the novel so early on?
GG: In Central Europe, irony is a very important thing. If you look at the first person in the lineage who is charged with being the grandfather of a great family, it’s kind of ironic that he would be homosexual. Baruch wasn’t keen on having a family, he was keen to have his own life, but in that age one couldn’t be openly gay, and you couldn’t follow your own path, you had to follow tradition instead.
AW: I read that and I thought “oh man, another form of persecution, like this guy doesn’t have it bad enough!”
GG: Exactly. The Jewish religion is centered around tradition and family and here’s Moses telling Baruch that if you follow my path your offspring will be free people for 1,000 years. This is problematic for someone who doesn’t want to start a family.
AW: Irony plays a large part throughout, what else inspired you and helped to shape the work?
GG: Throughout the book there are references to the Arabian stories, One Thousand and One Nights. The book is also written in 1,001 little segments as an homage. And of course the Latin American tradition of magical realism is present as well, where extraordinary occurrences live together with real things and you can jump back and forth chronologically.
AW: Ari’s grandfather says “When it comes to storytelling it doesn’t matter if something actually happened or not; It’s the way the story is told.” His great uncle tells him that it’s “easier to catch up with a liar than a lame dog.” And that “when you know what actually happened you don’t need to make up a story” And Uriel writes that “the most important thing is not having correct and truthful views, but rather daring to think for oneself.” Who’s right? How important is the truth in relation to the meaning or message behind the story being told?
GG: Yes. I think there is a kind of freedom and a playground that you explore as a novelist where you can introduce imagery and historical facts and then twist and turn them around. You have to be open to possibilities in order to write good fiction, so every character should have their own voice and their own personal truth. You never have one truth, instead you want to convey many truths and you can invent anything as long as it has literary value.
AW: How difficult was it for you to blend fact and fiction while writing? At certain points you’ve obviously can’t change the major historical details of European history. Did you find this sort of self-imposed structure limiting in that you were forced to adhere to history or liberating in that you could lean on it to guide the story ever forward?
GG: One of the reasons that I never wrote fiction before was that as someone who was engaged in personal and political debates around social issues I was so used to always looking at and examining and speaking to the facts. I had this feeling that if you write fiction then you belong to the other side, you become a Darth Vader and the dark side comes out when you don’t stick to reality and fact.
As look back now, ten years removed from public life I realize that I’ve changed my writing style and I feel a bit more liberated. People often ask me if I did a lot of research in order to write this novel and I have to confess that the answer is no because that would have limited me. I would have had to go back and spend a lot of time fact checking. Instead I wrote from remembrance and what I learned during my life as a knowledgeable person who reads a lot. Are all the facts correct? Of course not, because I didn’t check them, but I allowed myself the liberty to twist them in order to do or say what I wanted.
There are some things you can’t change of course. I couldn’t say that Napoleon lived in the twelfth century for example, because that’s absolutely not right, but on the other hand I could write things around Voltaire. Did he really have sex with an eighteen-year-old? Probably not, but in the world of fiction, who’s to say it’s not correct. I think the act of creating fiction is one of the areas in live where you’re encouraged and allowed to take great liberties.
AW: Specific character traits clearly befall each generation of subsequent Spinozas. Some are physical, like a large nose, but others like habitual lying or meeting an untimely end, are not. What’s your take on the nature vs. nurture battle? Are people simply hard wired to repeat the same mistakes of the past or is having a written record, being handed down stories of past triumphs and failures, can that change a behavior and push a person in a different direction?
GG: You’re wired to make the same mistakes of the past if you don’t have any knowledge of it. I think it was the great American-Spanish philosopher George Santayana who said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” You learn from the past because it’s your history and knowing it helps you avoid repeating mistakes.
As for the traits, like with someone of every generation being born with a big nose, throughout history Jews have always been depicted with great noses. I know lots of people with very small, beautiful noses, some are Jewish, some are not. I also know people with gigantic noses who are not Jewish. So it’s an attempt to defuse this terrible anti-Semitic way of portraying Jews by acknowledging the stereotype and embracing it so that it lessens its negative connotation.
By placing a liar in every generation, I’m trying to show that if you live as a minority, as the Jews have been in Europe, or if you’re someone who doesn’t fit within the model of society, you become an outsider. You have to hide your true being and your inner self to try to fit in. If you’re an outcast and you start to lie in order to adapt then you’re not being honest with yourself which makes life very difficult.
AW: It’s like an extreme reaction to being put in a trying situation.
GG: Yes, of course. If you become somebody who has to hide their inner identity then you are not living your life fully. In the book I make mention of the 1400s and 1500s in Spain where Jews all but had to convert. Many did, but ended up living a double life in which they still secretly observed the Jewish traditions. The question becomes, how normal are you really if you are forced to hide your true nature and your true self from the world?
AW: So then how important is organized religion and spiritual belief vs the idea of simply being a human being who has care and compassion for others?
GG: I’m a deeply anti-clerical person. I believe that organized religion is very often a way to oppress people and institute a kind of dictatorship. Don’t get me wrong, there are wonderful priests, wonderful rabbis, wonderful people who are very spiritual, but the first thing that seems to go out the window when religion is organized is that sense of spirituality. It instead becomes a source of power and a way to collect money and as a result you see people abusing the system.
So basically I’m not for any kind of organized religious life and I don’t believe in God, but I am a person of deep spiritual need. And I think the deep spiritual needs of humanity have been twisted by organized religion.
AW: It’s interesting to write a novel like this that leans so heavily on religious beliefs to tell its story and then ultimately arrive at that conclusion.
GG: You have to be a human being. Every time you try to capture a person or categorize or label them by saying that they are Jewish or Catholic, or whatever, you diminish them. It’s very often a bad characterization. If I were to say to you, Aaron, you are American, then what does that really say about you? There are millions of Americans in this country. It’s very important to focus on the individual and who he or she is and not try to spend so much time putting them into different boxes.
One question I’ve asked in my search to understand my own background is what is the greatest contribution of Judaism to the world? Different people will have different answers of course, but to me it’s the law. The law is universal and in its eyes we are all seen as equals. There’s no difference in gender, no difference in race or religion, they all become the same value. It’s this idea of universalism, and the idea of simply being a human being, that is the greatest Jewish contribution to the world.
AW: So then where does immortality ultimately lie? In our ability to remember, which is faulty at best, as Ari speculates, or in continuing our family line into successive generations so that we’re never forgotten, which is something he hasn’t managed to do?
GG: It’s a very crucial, important thing that we subconsciously have, this notion about the eternity of life. That it goes on. We have this holy idea about the sanctity of life. If you were to know that tomorrow the sun would die and then eight minutes later the world would end, you would never think about having children.
I’ll say four names to you. In the most enlightened century of human history, in an age filled with great knowledge and wondrous achievements here are four names: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. Combined they killed over 170 million innocent people because they wanted to transform society. If the sanctity of life is threatened by anything, it’s dictatorship and oppression.
In the book of course, because it’s a work of fiction you have to dramatize and I invented an elixir to represent the idea of immortality, but as Salman discovers, it’s a terrible notion. After using the elixir he lives for 360 years and he witnesses suffering and death. This idea that we should live forever, it’s not about our individual lives, but life itself. It’s the idea that life cannot ever be extinguished or killed completely.
Gabi Gleichmann’s debut novel The Elixir of Immortality is published by Other Press and is available wherever fine books are sold. You can learn more about Gabi Gleichmann by following him on Twitter.