Chaim Potok | Critical Review by Bryan Cheyette

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Chaim Potok.
This section contains 664 words
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Critical Review by Bryan Cheyette

SOURCE: "The Sacred East," in Times Literary Supplement, November 27, 1992, p. 26.

In the following review, Cheyette finds fault with Potok's limited knowledge of Korea and "didacticism" in I Am the Clay.

As a young Rabbi, Chaim Potok was a United States Army Chaplain during the Korean War. He served on the front line for sixteen months and this experience later provided the material for his first, unpublished, novel. I Am the Clay is evidently a rewriting of this embryonic early work. On one level, Potok could not have moved further from the rather sentimental depictions of New York's Hasidic Jewish community which he has made his own. And yet, the traumatic clash of conflicting cultures within an adolescent hero—which is Potok's perennial theme—is at the centre of this novel no less than his preceding work. Kim Sin Gyu, who takes up this boyish role, remembers his grandfather telling him that "only the wisest and stupidest of men never change. Which are you?" It is the combination of spiritual wisdom coupled with the necessity of modernization which has always preoccupied Potok. As with Reuven Malter in The Chosen (1967), Kim Sin Gyu stands on the cusp of the ancient and the modern worlds.

Kim Sin Gyu is discovered lying in a ditch with a shrapnel wound, "a piece of the scale from the dragon of death." He is saved by an unnamed old woman and her husband, who come across him during the retreat from the Chinese and the North Korean army. Most of the novel is taken up with the painful struggle for survival of these three refugees as they move towards an American-made shanty-town and back to their villages in the North. Potok, to his credit, wishes to recount their story from the viewpoint of the victim. But, in attempting laudably to get under the skin of the Korean peasantry, he has adopted a faux-naive style, which often has an oddly condescending tone: "The old man watched in wonder and terror. The machines of the foreigners. How can they be defeated, these giants of pale skin, these devils on our sacred soil?"

Potok's aim is to convey a "sacred" Far Eastern world in which the spiritual realm struggles to overcome an oppressive reality. His clipped, repetitive sentences endeavour to portray the trance-like state of the refugees as they continue to pay homage to their gods and the ever-present spirits which surround them. At the same time, he is happy to cite Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot and Elie Wiesel (among others) in showing the horrors of the Korean War from the perspective of European history. The problem for Potok is that it is impossible for him to let the old man and woman—as they are known throughout—simply speak for themselves. In becoming a surrogate son whom the woman nurtures and the old man jealously rejects, Kim Sin Gyu evokes primeval emotions.

The boy eventually embodies the "magical" dimension which is meant to characterize the Korean peasantry. But, instead of speaking with the authentic voice of the victim, Potok's refugees seem to be mere counterpoints to a brutal Western modernity. The "upside down" world of America is clay-like, filled with machines and "empty" when compared with the primitive, child-like, and spiritually fulfilled East.

By the last and most successful chapter of I Am the Clay, a Potok-like chaplain appears and arranges for Kim Sin Gyu to move away from the rural village which he has made his home. His adopted mother's grave, which is the site for the spirits of his deceased family, has to be removed to make way for an American encampment. Once the limits of his "magical" powers are realized, Kim Sin Gyu, not unlike his Kiplingesque counterpart, travels to the Westernized city of Seoul. The synthesis of opposites is the basic pattern to which all of Potok's fiction conforms. But when applied to a world with which he has only a passing acquaintance, his didacticism is exposed as limited and anaemic.

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This section contains 664 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Bryan Cheyette
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