The Assassins of Eden
By Erle Kahnert
Orillia: 2004 (self-published)
Reviewed by Daniel F. Graves
In book eleven of the Odyssey, long-suffering Odysseus takes a journey into the underworld in search of direction from the shade the seer Teiresias. As we journey with the hero into that dark realm we find ourselves, with the hero, surrounded by restless ghosts who wander the nether regions, their stories unfinished and their lives unredeemed. There is the mother of Odysseus who died of a broken heart, longing for the return of her absent son; there is the great fallen Achilles, who longs to know of the fate of his son; there is Agamemnon, slain at the hand of his treacherous wife, Clytemnestra; and there is Elpenor, whose body has been left unburied on Circe’s island by Odysseus and his band of men. These are voices that cry out both for the completion of their own unfinished journeys and the redemption of their lost, flawed lives.
It is with such voices that Erle Kahnert converses in his 2004 novel, Assassins of Eden. Kahnert, himself, is on a heroic journey. It is a journey to hear the voices silenced by the passage from life into death – voices at once silent and at the same time eerily haunting our dreams. For Kahnert, as for the main character in the story, his grandfather Robert, it is always “now.” Time collapses into the eternal moment, which can be either a moment of joy and bliss, or a moment in which unfinished business and the pain of the past threatens to overwhelm. The stories of our families are alive within our souls, either as scars or as blessings. Assassins of Eden is a story of redemption in which the wounds of family history are gathered into a moment of the sacred “now” and healed, that a house, an oikos, cleansed by tears might see their mourning turn to songs of joy.
Kahnert’s story begins in a 1930’s Toronto home, on a Sunday morning, with a father and son, and stories! The father told the story of his life and family to the boy, and amidst much excitement and adventure, was also communicated pain and bereavement. Communicate – a word we use so prosaically, but truly they did commune and the family story was internally incorporated, from father to son, as it had been before. Kahnert writes movingly, “I know that dad had been deeply hurt in his childhood and that he had never done the work of grieving for the double disaster of losing his mother and sister within six months… those hurts groaned and writhed inside my father. The hurts of my father as a little child must have staggered onto the nightly stage of his dreaming. They certainly foamed and swirled unnoticed in his conscious life and perhaps were passed on right there at the breakfast table on a Sunday morning” (page 5).
Thus the story begins: the story of Robert Kahnert, the author’s grandfather. It is a work of fiction, and it is a true story. Kahnert (the author) is like the Homeric bard who takes down the lyre from the wall and begins to sing the tale of days long past. He sings of the pain of an illegitimate son. He sings of a loving romance, a meeting of mind and spirit between two lovers. He sings of life cut short, and the loss of beloved children, and of a lonely Minnesota grave. He sings of the journey and the settling on Lake Nipissing in Ontario. And he sings of a man’s last day on this earth as he journeys down a river and deep into the redemption of his soul. Kahnert’s prose is lyrical and the story, the song (!), is true to the core, even if it did not happen the way it is told.
In classical literature, the great bard takes his lyre from the wall and begins to play. More often or not the bard is blind, but oh, what insight he has! We, too, are blind. So much is hidden from our eyes. As we probe the soil of family history, there is so little that we know about our ancestors, even those removed by only a few generations. There are those few material remains, if we are lucky, and there are the reminiscences of elder family and friends, but to much we remain blind; in the dark. There is much mystery surrounding the death of Robert Kahnert, whose body was found floating in Lake Nipissing after traversing down the river in his canoe. What were his final thoughts? How did he meet his death? The “facts” of the case are lost to history, but the meaning and purpose of Robert Kahnert need not be lost to us. Thus, the bard picks up his lyre and sings the song of Robert Kahnert, taking full advantage of his blindness to the past, to the facts of the case, and the lost internal journey, laying claim to what he can see, and follows Robert down that river on the last day of Robert’s life, exploring at one and the same time the interior landscape of Robert Kahnert and the inner landscape of the bard who sings the tale. Yet, more profoundly, also exploring the inner landscape of the house of Kahnert.
There is no doubt about how the story ends. Robert will die. History has written it. But what shall Robert mean to this family, and to us? Shall the assassins of life claim him, and by extension the spirit of an entire house? Or shall voices of joy prevail? Enter Rosemund, Robert’s loving spouse, taken too quickly from his loving arms. Her passing was a wound on his life, and yet her presence completed his eternal meaning. She leaves few historic relics, no picture exists, but her legacy of love is pervasive and transformative. As Robert journeys down the river for the final time, on his final day on this earth, the story of his love unfolds, intermingled with the story of Rosemund’s love, and their love both for lost children and for the one that lived. Healing tears flow into the depths of eternal purpose.
The lake is clearly a holy place for this family. Subsequent generations continue to find much life there. It is an Eden of sorts, and yet assassins have continued to stir below its waves, ever-threatening. To tell the story, not the facts, but the truth, is not so much to silence the assassins but to redeem them as well, for love conquers all, does it not? It redeems the world. Kahnert points out: is this not the meaning of the name Rosemund? “Rose means pure love and Rosemund, pure love of the world.” Thus, in the telling of Robert’s story, even though it is the living out of his last day, there is reverie because what once destroyed life has been transformed into life-giving power. The lake claims a man, but in powerful baptismal language and imagery, his tragic death, a death that has thus far crippled, becomes in the ever-present sacred now a means of redemption – the redemption of the man and the healing cleansing of a house.
Clearly unstated, but not far below the surface, is the Orestes myth, in which the house of Atreus is plagued with blood-vengeance. From the betrayal of Atreus by his brother Thyestes, and the subsequent murder of the latter’s children, through the sacrifice of Iphigenia by Agamemnon, the son of Atreus, to the murder of Agamemnon by his vengeful wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, son of Thyestes, through the their slaughter at the hands of Orestes, song of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, the cycle of violence continues until at last compassion destroys the cycle of violence. As Orestes stands trial, not only with his own sin before him, but the sin of his entire house upon his shoulders, the blood-thirsty, vengeance-seeking creatures known as Furies who doggedly pursue him, are transformed into creatures of light when they choose, at the prodding of Athena, to become so much more than what they are. In the forgiveness of Orestes and in the transformation of the Furies, the house of Atreus is redeemed, the world is made new, and songs of joy are sung.
Assassins of Eden is a song of joy. It is a story of remembrance, redemption and healing. Most importantly, though, it is an archetypal tale. What is possible for this family, this house, is also possible for yours and mine. Kahnert himself says it best:
“These stories have been like subterranean monsters waiting for a propitious moment to come to the surface for the cleansing waters of forgiveness. There were hurts and old wounds in our family that cried out for healing. And now many years later in this story may those hurts come to the surface and be cleansed in the sunshine of radical forgiveness. May the old wounds like the fears of the lurking shadows in the trees fade into the light of being, knowing and loving. Something like that” (page 5).
In the underworld, Achilles the Danaan spearman implored Odysseus to tell him about his son Neoptolemus, and upon hearing that his son exceeded him as a great hero and was alive and flourishing, the spirit of Achilles, the son of Aeacus, that great runner, departed with long strides over the field of asphodel, joyful in that his son was preeminent. And so glides Robert Kahnert down that crystal river, joyful that those of his house find healing and love.
Amen and amen.