Anouk Markovits never intended to write about the Satmar Hasidic community in which she grew up, but then came 9/11, and Markovits thought, “I’ve had personal experience with fundamentalist environments.” Still, writing about that world didn’t come easily. Whether fiction or memoir, most books set in these environments are written by and about those who, like Markovits, have left, and that wasn’t the story she wanted to tell. Which raised the question: “Could I possibly write a book about the people who stayed?”
Markovits’s English-language debut, the novel I Am Forbidden (Hogarth Press), in which the outside world remains always outside, a place of temptation, opportunity, or of no interest whatsoever, is that book. Though compact (it started out “humongous” Markovits says, “but the longer I worked on it, the shorter it got”), the story spans 70 years—from the start of WWII to the present—and three locations: Transylvania, Paris, and Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
When we first meet Zalman Stern, the most brilliant student in the Satmar rabbi’s court in 1939 Transylvania, Romania, he’s in the throes of an erotic dream, “sinning in his sleep,” despite heroic efforts. Markovits started there, she says, because she “wanted to establish that world in the most efficient way.” Fundamentalisms, she says, have no room for the individual, no room for the body; indeed, the body is something to be on guard against. Zalman and his wife survive WWII and move to Paris with their growing family, which includes Mila, the orphaned daughter of Zalman’s old study partner. The book is her story. In some ways, Mila’s life is a series of miracles: reconnected to her community, she marries Josef—himself a hidden child during the war and the man who saved her. They live in Williamsburg, where the Satmar rabbi and the remnants of his European followers are rebuilding their lost world. But the most ordinary miracle of all, conception, is denied her.
Without a child, Mila cannot perpetuate the family the Nazis almost destroyed, nor is her marriage secure. As she grows increasingly desperate, both she and Josef begin to consider actions that violate orthodox strictures. When they both take action, simultaneously, in Paris, amid the electricity of the 1968 student revolt, the results are decisive, but decidedly mixed. While Mila can live with the choices she makes, Josef, whom Markovits calls the “character in the book who most grips me,” cannot.
Casting Mila as her protagonist allows Markovits to explore the condition of being a mamzer. Often loosely translated as bastard, the word designates a person born from a relationship considered unacceptable and, as a result, rendered unmarriageable unto the 10th generation. To Markovits, this profound injustice—banning people for acts they did not commit—embodies the nature of fundamentalism, which insists that “truth is eternal, absolute, doesn’t relate to contingencies.” Contingencies, of course, are what individual lives are made of. Finding a way to depict what it means to live in the gap between unchanging and eternal beliefs and life’s shifting realities was essential to Markovits, who believes that the novel’s job is to shed light on what is scandalous in a society.
If Markovits sounds serious about literature, she has reason: she credits her ability to leave her community to two things. First, since there were only two Satmar families in her French town, she went to school and played with non-Satmar children, both Jewish and not. Second: reading. Books were not only a way to encounter a world she was told to shun, they let her see the inner lives of that world’s inhabitants. In I Am Forbidden, Markovits reverses the lens, giving her believers inner lives that outsiders can see and feel. Asked how she got over her initial doubts about writing, Markovits, who is trained as an architect and “fascinated by how things work,” said it was by focusing on the task of shaping the novel. And when her worries about getting inside the characters resurfaced, she thought about how little Flaubert would have had in common with a real-life Emma Bovary and told herself: “If Flaubert can write Madame Bovary, I can write I Am Forbidden.”
A frequent contributor to Publishers Weekly, Martha Schulman’s essays and short stories have been published in the U.S. and Britain.