Review of Albert Russo's novel Shalom Tower Syndrome by David Alexander - Xlibris - ISBN: 978-1-4257-7726-5

Review of Albert Russo's novel Shalom Tower Syndrome by David Alexander - Xlibris - ISBN: 978-1-4257-7726-5

Review of Albert Russo's novel Shalom Tower Syndrome by David Alexander - Xlibris - ISBN: 978-1-4257-7726-5

There is a type of novel whose aim, as Jonathan Swift wrote of his intention behind Gulliver's Travels, is to

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          There is a type of novel whose aim, as Jonathan Swift wrote of his intention behind Gulliver's Travels, is to "vex the world rather than divert it." If it's an honest and true-hearted novel, then it will inevitably also serve both as a vexatious testament and a diverting read. Such is Albert Russo's Shalom Tower Syndrome.

                It may be rare to begin an exploration of a book with its title, except here the title seems to have links to a wide miscellany of things, and a certain way of walking up the walls of the mind and capering on the roof. The Shalom Tower, "Peace Tower," called Migdal Shalom in Hebrew, is a rectangular black monolith that rises at the north end of Herzl Street in Tel Aviv. It overlooks the main city of a nation to whom peace has always seemed like the eye of a hurricane, and whose capital, Jerusalem, has a reputation of working strange thaumaturgy on the mind and soul. So the title functions as a neurosemantic shuttlecock. Linguistic interconnections are constantly caroming off the skull's interior.

                The first meanings that spring to mind for the phoneme of "syn" in "syndrome" have sexual connotations; original sin, sin in the Garden of Eden; the act of conception, thus the fuck itself, as arch and primeval evildoing. And yet the dictionary rewards one's lexicographical sleuthing with a surprise: the first definitions cited for the noun are religious! Sin means, first and foremost, estrangement from God, secondly, an act regarded by theologians as a transgression of God's will. And then another surprise -- not only is sin also the 21st letter of the Hebrew alphabet, it is the name for the Mesopotamian god of the moon, the counterpart of the Sumerian Nanna.

                The Encyclopedia of Gods on my reference shelf relates that Sin, whose consort is Nikkal, (she who bore the sun god Utu) is symbolized by the new moon and perceived as a bull whose horns are the crescent of the moon. I now ponder the significance of "horns" as they relate to Russo's novel, which is replete with the lunar messages of sex as from time to time grace our dreams with manic copulations, and especially the significance of the obscene gesture, known throughout Italy as il Cornuto, which calls those to whom it is aimed cuckolds, men who have lost control of their women, thus their manhood, and thus, in this Mediterranean culture still steeped in ancient madnesses, their lives. For in Shalom Tower Syndrome, the protagonist, Alexis, born in Africa to a mother who was a metisse, or a woman of mixed bloodlines, and to a father who was a Jew, has arrived at a point in which both his life and his marriage have come undone and where Alexis' consciousness has dissolved into what psychologists call a fugue state in which past, present and future seem to merge, or more appropriately, collide.

                "You feel something leaking in you but don't known where it originates," relates Alexis early on by way of explaining the reasons why he and his wife Serena chose to "break from our grim, smog-filled Milan environment" and commence a series of peregrinations to the antipodes of the globe and the soul. "You even cease to be aware of it. Because for a while the leaking abates. Then a drought settles in, sweeping through your plexus, and at this state the process becomes irreversible. The walls inside you begin to crack...."

                In literary terms such a fugue state could be further classified as a coex system, a term coined by psychologist Stanislaus Grof to describe the state marked by dissolved psychic boundaries such as those made manifest in James Joyce's novels, like Ulysses; a state which, according to Grof, bears marked resemblances to the fugue state experienced under the influence of LSD and other psychedelic drugs as well as to the trauma of birth.

                At any rate, perhaps because "whom the gods would destroy they first make mad," the next word that freely associates after cornuto is the Italian, pazzo, crazy, a word that connotes, at least to the Mafia, who call those afflicted with it "potts" or "potsy," the pretext for a hit on one who has lost the respect of his peers. Curious that the book's protagonist, Alexis, is going slowly crazy in Jerusalem, that he embodies a chain of causality between estrangement from God, sexual transgression, and the cuckolded husband. And, something else -- I mentioned before that sin is also the 21st letter of the Hebrew Alphabet, add the numerals together, as do the sages of the Kabala, and you get -- three. Curioser and curioser: Russo's narrative begins to take shape, from the very first lines of chapter two, with a dissertation on the significance of the triad in Alexis' life:


            “Triality... Tri ... Three ... Trial ... Trial of a lifetime.  The full word epitomizing the existential qualm for which my heritage is responsible: Africa, Judaism and Italy.  They clash and coexist in cycles, in a fashion so inchoate that I am never quite sure which will take the upper hand.”


            Running through this voyage through the fugue states of a coex system is the concept of the Trinity, whose multiple associations with religion, sexual ménages à trois, multiple personalities, multiple personal and national origins, snake through the warp and woof of the storyline and are visible at nearly every point in it.

                And then there is also the phoneme "drome." Aerodrome, Videodrome Signals, arenas, amphitheaters, Roman Colosseums are evoked. Here a consultation with Webster's yields fresh conundrums, for a drome is defined as an airfield equipped with, among other things, a control tower. A tower! Yes, a sin drome. A tower of sin, a Triune sin, that is also a trial for this pilgrim to Jerusalem, whose name means City of Peace. And was it not high towers on whose exposed summits Syrian pillar hermits -- the "stylitoe" who modeled their peculiar self-mortifications after the first of their number, Simeon Stylites -- squatted to endure the privations of the desert in order to cleanse their souls of sin?

                Somehow, as I write this, I hear the voice of a patch of cells in the language center of my brain I call The German, saying "schau das an," which in the Austrian dialect of German whose early inundation of the formative ego by a family still residing mentally in Europe doubtless conceived the seed-germ of that dab of nerve tissue means "look at this." Why should I be thinking "look at this" in childhood German as I ponder the neurosemantic, Joycean fugue aspects of the title? I try to run this down: Shalom also sounds to me like Salome, a possible variation on the Hebrew word for Peace, and also the name of a treacherous harlot who, in dancing lasciviously before the biblical King Herod, secured the beheading of John the Baptist.

                Am I to "look" in order to "piece" together the connections between "Peace tower," "sin," "drome," and the hidden sinews that form the connective tissue binding together the phallic architecture from whose vantage point one can "look out" over Tel Aviv with the best view of the city and the insights the book offers into the psychopathology of sexual power politics, that leads to the tantalizing thought that the book is a "drome," i.e., a field or amphitheater of barbaric divertissements topped by a Mephistophelian column from whose heights one can have a view into the Heart of Darkness below (another title, by the way, of a book that like this one concerns Africa), and by so doing attempt to cleanse one's soul?

                And what of Alexis, the name of the book's antihero? The name rings no bells in the mental belfry, but Alexius does: Alexius I Comnenus, the 11th Century Byzantine emperor, inspired the First Crusade. Jerusalem again. City of Peace, as we've pointed out. And also, city of a peculiar sin drome, or syndrome, based on a usually temporary religio-maniacal psychosis known clinically as Jerusalem Syndrome. And it is for sure that the character of Alexis has developed this mental dysfunction from practically the first moment of his arrival in Jerusalem.

                Not quite, though, for like the vast majority of those diagnosed with Jerusalem Syndrome, Alexis has already gone crazy. We suspect early on, then become increasingly aware, that Alexis has come to Jerusalem to die, perhaps even to rise reborn, like another who once came riding into the city on an ass to be crucified at around the same time of year -- Israel Independence Day -- that the narrative's time frame encompasses. And, indeed, the obsession with a goal or mission of grandiose, even Apocalyptic, import that takes hold of the afflicted, may sometimes result in attempts to end their peculiar sufferings by enduring a Christlike death, often in a "high place," which, in the absence of a handy Golgotha, the Place of the Skull in Old Aramaic (also called Calvary, and believed to lie on the site on which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built), may well present the aspect of a Tower of Peace:


“I walk away from him, brush past several other tourists and locate a narrow space entrenched between two metallic columns.  It is small but wide enough for a person of my build to climb over the guardrail and wedge himself sideways in it.  I make sure no one comes near me, at least during the few seconds I need in order to hurl myself into the void.  With a little effort, I am able to reach the guardrail, but as I am about to climb over it, the left side of my shorts gets hooked onto a sharp edge.  Rage mixed with a growing sense of panic takes hold of me, and the more I try to wrench myself out of the nail-like object, the fiercer my shorts cling to it, in spite of its widen ing tear.

            A woman’s voice suddenly booms out: ‘Somebody, quick!  There’s a guy who wants to jump off.’ ”


            Alexis' suicide attempt ends in a seriocomic burlesque of tragedy. But the bizarre chain of events that has afflicted him since his arrival in Israel, that has caused him to quit his wife in Jerusalem for a junket to Tel Aviv with a complete stranger, and that has knocked him into a fugue state of towering dimensions, has also brought him face to face with hidden currents of his being that afflict his mind as the most unimaginable of mortal sins. Arrived in Israel the underpinnings of reality have given way beneath his feet. Alexis is a man already toppled from the pinnacle of a psychic tower of peace, that fanciful pedestal constructed from the trappings of the conventional "good" life he'd left behind when he set foot in Israel. He is a man already falling through space on a downward trajectory from sin to drome. Why not make it official and die for real?

                Alexis doesn't, and while the event marks a monumental turning point in his life, it's not the sort of plot dénouement that is attended by the trappings of literary melodrama which, as in the real world, as in this novel, seldom reveal their impact on the outer universe though they leave profound imprints on the inner streams of being. Just as it is in some ways reminiscent of Joyce's Ulysses, Shalom Tower Syndrome shares attributes with Eric Ambler's tales of "innocents abroad," but it also shares a great deal with those 19th and early 20th century authors of the roman à clef, "romances with a key," especially those penetratingly insightful books and stories written by the Swiss novelist Hermann Hesse that Hesse dubbed Seelenbiographie or "biographies of the soul." Shalom Tower Syndrome is very much a modern biography of the soul, and onto its pages Russo seems to have poured out dark secrets and lustrous truths dredged from the depths of his being.


 - David Alexander


Fiction writer and poet of great talent, David Alexander is also well-known for his literary essays and his technothrillers, for which Richmond observer calls him “the king of action-adventure writing”.  Right now, he says he is physically in New York but mentally in Rome.