Israeli novelist revives Londons writers-and-artists group

In Aharon Megged’s novel “Mandrakes from the Holy Land,” Beatrice Campbell-Bennett, a member of London’s contentious and forward-thinking Bloomsbury Group, comes to Ottoman-controlled Palestine in 1906 to paint the flowers mentioned in the Bible.

She is particularly drawn to the mandrake; the plant that bought Leah a night of love with angel-wrestling Jacob takes on ghostly proportions here.

An epistolary novel at the height of its form, “Mandrakes” consists entirely of letters and journal entries, the most stunning of which are Beatrice’s letters to Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister and Beatrice’s one true love.

Combining fact with eloquent fiction, “Mandrakes,” written in 1998 and more recently made available in English, is a contemporary novel of biblical density. It explores Palestine on the brink of massive upheaval and immigration, drawing all lines back to a spiritual womb. The mandrake, whose human-looking roots have inspired its inclusion in fertility rituals since ancient times, is central to this search.

Beatrice loves only two things with all her heart — Vanessa and the Bible. Art, in so much as it actually takes place here (it’s more often talked about than practiced), is a way for her to try to make sense of seemingly conflicting urges and the conflicts of trust that plague her world. Religiosity and sexuality entwine tightly as the story progresses.

Vanessa, in a letter to Dr. P.D. Morrison, who has been sent to Palestine to care for Beatrice and whose footnotes pepper the book, asks, “Is it the ‘holiness’ of that land that has driven her mad?” Megged almost equates madness and holiness, but chooses instead to offer them as alternative views of the same scene.

Winner of countless awards for his novels, plays and stories, and once president of the Israeli PEN Center, Megged is no stranger to literary depth and form. Except for the mystic, darkly revelatory finale (Megged’s “master novelist” signature), every plot development in “Mandrakes’ is prefigured, but this formalism opens up many layers and textures to be felt directly.

The Bloomsbury Group, known as much for sexual as intellectual “openness,” animates Beatrice in ways that she fears. The group’s post-impressionist paintings were perhaps Megged’s models for his richly detailed yet subtle strokes of story.

“Mandrakes” asks how far we will go to pursue a relationship, any relationship. Fluctuating between animism and a hyperrealism particular to the desert, the emotional landscape is constantly cleared and replanted by events moving faster than any human being can comprehend.

Traveling by horseback, Beatrice encounters iconoclasts and idealists, Bedouins and ambassadors. Megged treats them all with life-giving specificity. Everyone has too much knowledge or not nearly enough; everyone has wisdom but is searching for understanding. Or visa versa.

As tensions build, Beatrice is raped — or possibly raped — twice. In one of her lowest moments, she simply sits on her bed, “understanding nothing.” When we recall that “Mandrakes” is, despite being arranged as a “study” of Beatrice’s “descent,” mostly all in her own words, we see that in writing to an imagined view of someone else she is in fact writing to herself.

Entering the mind of a British Christian lesbian painter with as much ease and potency as he does a Turkish official or a muscled, sexually charged kibbutznik, Megged ultimately writes about the unity of experience. His characters live through countless inexpressible — yet somehow expressed — intimate relations.

While they are destroyed or tragically deployed from their normal surroundings by these relationships, each individual reveals an infinitely deep joy all their own. It may seem that the effects of their transgressions (the most harmful of which are borne of simple curiosity here) only have a localized effect, especially in the untamable desert. But Megged is out to prove otherwise; every foible is in fact a universal fable.

“I … look for something else in people. Not for ‘the acme of perfection.’ Perhaps the opposite … An incomplete, imperfect circle. Something of a riddle,” writes Beatrice. Riddles to consider again and again.

“Mandrakes from the Holy Land” by Aharon Megged (220 pages, Toby Press, $22.95)