Rodinsky's Room

Rachel Lichtenstein, Author, Iain Sinclair, Joint Author
Rachel Lichtenstein, Author, Iain Sinclair, Joint Author Granta Books $29.95 (340p) ISBN 978-1-86207-257-2
Reviewed on: 01/31/2000
Release date: 02/01/2000
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Published to critical acclaim last year in the U.K., British artist Lichtenstein's obsessive quest to uncover the fate of a reclusive Jewish scholar named David Rodinsky unfolds as a labyrinthine detective story and a moving search for the author's roots. Fluent in several languages, alive and dead, Rodinsky was the caretaker of one of London's oldest synagogues and lived above it in an attic room until he disappeared mysteriously in the late 1960s. Left undisturbed for over a decade, his abandoned room was finally unsealed to reveal chaos: hundreds of books and records, mystical formulas and diagrams, diaries and bizarre poems. Was Rodinsky, as those who remembered him variously claimed, a self-taught kabbalist, a holy fool, a Dostoyevskian ""underground man""--or was he a sad, mentally handicapped autistic? To find the answers, Lichtenstein consulted a kabbalist rabbi in Jerusalem, tracked down Rodinsky's surviving relatives and journeyed to Poland, where she delved into Rodinsky's past as well as her own family's (her grandparents escaped Poland in the 1930s to settle in East London). Lichtenstein's first-person narrative alternates with ruminative chapters by novelist/essayist Sinclair, who examines the legends surrounding Rodinsky and scrutinizes the rediscovery of East London by novelists, filmmakers and artists, who view it as a sanctuary preserving remnants of immigrant culture, Georgian London and working-class values. Ultimately, the Rodinsky enigma cannot support the speculative and interpretive edifice built around his memory, but his obscure life, a metaphor of Jewish tragedy and survival, yields a vibrant time capsule to the lost worlds of London's Jewish East End and the Eastern European shtetl. Photos. (May)
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