Thursday, December 22, 2011

Merkabah Rider: The Mensch With No Name - Edward M. Erdelac

The Mensch With No Name is the second volume of the collected tales of the Jewish gunslinger and mystic known as the Merkabah Rider by Edward M. Erdelac. It contains episodes 5 - 8 and is a continuation of the story of Tales of the High Planes Drifter, which I read earlier this year. Looking at those titles, Erdelac also has an appreciation for the Western genre in cinema as well as in literature. Erdelac's brand of Western doesn't just include the standard ingredients of hard men, dusty towns, hostile natives and bandits,  he also includes a lot of religious and supernatural elements. In the first volume these are mostly drawn from Jewish mysticism but in this volume ranges more widely.

In the final episode of Tales of the High Planes Drifter, Rider uncovers information that makes his quest to find his former master and the man who is responsible for the destruction of the religious order they were once part of, all the more urgent. Adon's plans shake the very foundations of Rider's beliefs and threaten the nature of existence. As Rider's search intensifies, he meets with more and more resistance both in the real word as well as in the Yenne Velt. Slowly his defences are broken down by this relentless assault, but help arrives from unexpected quarters.

The title of the novel prompted another look at the Yiddish language for me. The word 'Mensch' is derived from German (and until we changed the spelling to 'mens' in the 1950s, it existed in Dutch as well). In both German and Dutch is means 'human being' or 'man' (as in the species). English doesn't really have a single word translation for it that is an exact fit.In Yiddish it seems to have acquired an additional meaning. A good person, a person of honour and integrity. It's interesting to see how such meanings drift. This volume again contains quite a lot of words in various languages. I may be a bit odd in that respect but the appendix is definitely an interesting read (although it would be nice if the notes had included what language the phrases were coming from a bit more consistently).

As I mentioned in this introduction, the religious themes in the stories range a bit more widely than just Jewish mysticism. There are references to Aztec and Hindu mythology for instance but also quite a few to H.P. Lovercraft's Chtulu mythos and a depiction of Lucifer who has apparently read John Milton, all hinting at a reality much more complex than the world view Rider has believed in thus far. It forces him to re-examine his beliefs and introduces an interesting bit of tension into the story. On the one hand, a fellow Jewish mystic reminds him of how unorthodox some of his own practices are. On the other, he is forced to acknowledge that his views on creation may not be complete.

Erdelac also includes a number of historical titbits into the novel, so many in fact that I probably missed most of them. It is easy to focus on the adventure side of the story but for the real fan of the western genre there is a lot more to uncover than just that. The most notable historical reference is probably the appearance of gambler, gunman and dentist Doc Holliday when Rider arrives in the town of Las Vegas in episode six: The Damned Dingus. For the linguists among us, dingus is actually derived from the Dutch word 'ding', meaning thing. It appears our influence on the English language extends beyond nautical terms and that dreadful word apartheid. What did make me blink in historical terms was the appearance of a bunch of Apache warriors on horseback in episode seven: The Outlaw Gods.

In the review of the previous volume I said that Rider would probably benefit from a full novel treatment. Although this volume, and I assume this goes for the third one as well, follows the same format as the previous one, each collecting four novella length pieces, I feel that is has become a lot harder to see them as individual novellas. Many references to events in previous adventures pop up in these stories. Erdelac does some repeating on occasion but I very much doubt the reader will get the full picture from that if one of these episodes were to be read as a standalone.

Although I must say that I'm not sure the episodic nature of the narrative does the story any favours in terms of pacing in particular, the second volume of Merkabah Rider adventures is again a very entertaining read. Erdelac combines his knowledge of the Old West in literature and cinema as well as in history with a variety of religious themes that give the work more depth than one would expect of a classic western. The Mensch With No Name is a solid continuation of the first four episodes, expanding Erdelac's vision of the Old West in surprising ways.  I guess there is a reason they invented the label Weird West for such novels. Looking forward to the third volume, Have Glyphs Will Travel.

Book Details
Title: Merkabah Rider: The Mensch With No Name
Author: Edward M. Erdelac
Publisher: Damnation Books
Pages: 294
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-61572-189-4
First published: 2010

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