At the turn of the twentieth century, Poliakov, a Russian Jewish revolutionary, flees the authorities after participating in an assassination and abandoning his pregnant girlfriend. He ends up in Leh, a small, backwater town in northern India. There he is treated by a British doctor named McKenzie, head of the local hospital, who is also far from home — and obsessively plotting against the Italian archaeologist who “stole” his wife. This baroque revenge involves forged and buried antiquities, scrolls with a religious backstory invented out of whole cloth, and a complex plot that pulls many characters, like Poliakov, into its orbit.
The cuckolded McKenzie has a recurring nightmare about a man sinking into the sands of the desert under the heavy weight of an anchor. The inclusion of anchors among the antiquities they bury in the desert is an apt choice by the author, emblematic of the weight of the doctor’s own shame, sadness, regret, and loneliness. This is one of several self-destructive obsessions threaded throughout the narrative.
Though Poliakov and McKenzie have both lost their own faith, they understand that humans will believe any well-told tale that is in their own self-interest. They thus expect that their fabricated religious narrative, no less ridiculous than those already believed by most of the world, will bamboozle the arrogant European scholars, who pillage their colonial possessions and make off with the spoils.
The decisions made by these men and several minor characters reverberate throughout the generations, as sons and grandsons in Israel, India, and England unwittingly repeat the mistakes of their fathers. Although these tales are separated by many decades, they are skillfully interwoven, and it often seems that all the threads are happening simultaneously; Poliakov’s son is described as the “old man” he will become, even in stories from his youth. Their futures feel inevitable, foretold like their concocted “ancient” scriptures. These are men and boys plagued by feelings of inadequacy, who believe that feats of heroism in battle will make them real men, and who then suffer from guilt over their actions or inactions. Emotionally stunted, they hold themselves at a distance, ignorant of their own motivations, nursing old grudges, oblivious to the people who love them and want their love. As McKenzie ruminates in a rare moment of perceptiveness: “Blindness knows no bounds … If man was aware of the number of mistakes he would yet make on the road ahead, how many failures would befall him, how his heart would hurt, he wouldn’t dare take even one step.”
This 860-page novel requires a patient reader; multiple chapters take place in a dark room where the hesitant Poliakov decides whether or not to kill a man. This patience is more than rewarded in the end, as it gradually becomes clear how all the strands of the book fit together. The unexpected connections between eras, though invisible to the characters, are thrilling to the reader. The story speeds up toward the end, beginning with the trek into the desert to bury the antiquities (which is relatively early in the actual chronology). The characters all hurtle towards their fates — in some cases literally.
Not for the faint of heart, Youval Shimoni’s kaleidoscopic novel, ably translated from the Hebrew by Michael Sharp, spans one century, three continents, and three generations. Offering a cynical, perceptive, and expansive view of human folly and weakness, with elements of timeless human tragedy and plot lines that recall ancient myth, The Salt Line is a moving meditation on the power of storytelling.
Lauren Gilbert is Director of Public Services at the Center for Jewish History in New York City, where she manages the Lillian Goldman Reading Room and Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute and arranges and moderates online book discussions.