Two-thirds of the way through “The Secret Chord,” the latest book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks, the narrator has a moment of clarity.
“What had I done with my life, to give it into the service of this evil? I had seen myself as a man in the hand of [God] — serving the king chosen to lead his people in this land. But what kind of god could will this baseness, this treachery? What kind of nation could rise under such a leader? If David was a man after this god’s own heart, as my inner voice had told me often and again, what kind of black-hearted deity held me in his grip?”
Our guide through this bleakly dramatized account of the life and times of King David of Old Testament fame is a possibly prophetic, probably epileptic, man named Natan (Brooks gives her characters names that have been transliterated from the Biblical Hebrew). Orphaned by David during the future king’s early rape-and-plunder phase, Natan gradually reveals himself to be suffering from more than “divinely inspired” fits. His is one of the most dismaying cases of Stockholm Syndrome to be found in recent fiction. Over the course of “The Secret Chord,” Natan pledges his eternal loyalty to the man who killed his family in front of him, helps him slay innocent people by the hundreds, hides King David’s many violations of his own laws, and continually struggles to placate the god who has unfathomably chosen a cruel, unwise and woefully self-satisfied person as a paradigm of manhood and monarchy.
Every so often, Natan falls without warning into a trance and gives voice to God’s will. These virtual to-do lists from on high are the only outside input regarding his questionable intrigues and distasteful assaults that David ever accepts. As David’s closest adviser, Natan is privy to the entirety of the king’s sordid past, which he relates to the increasingly dismayed reader. There is very little to admire in Brooks’ reimagining of the Biblical hero. Even David’s musical talent, alluded to in the title, usually appears as little more than a self-indulgent expression of his own awesomeness. Like an egomaniacal rock star, King David wildly plows through the life of every person he encounters, friend or foe, and leaves chaos in his wake.
In this dreary story of rape, murder, incest, oppression and subjugation to the patriarchy, what is “this baseness, this treachery” that finally pushes Natan too far? Is it when David gives his first wife to another man, then brusquely tears her away from what has turned out to be a happy second marriage? Or is it when his daughter is raped and beaten by his son, her own half-brother, and David’s only response is to banish her in order to conceal the dishonor that her violation might cause him?
No, it is nothing more than Natan’s discovery that the battlefield death of Bathsheba’s husband was arranged by David so he could claim his loyal soldier’s lovely wife for himself. In the catalog of awful things David does throughout the text, this action rates a shrug at most. But for Natan it is the last straw.
After striking out for the open desert, tearing his hair, weeping and casting himself upon the ground to await relief from his turmoil via the sweet hand of death, Natan is struck by yet another of his visions.
“The painful future stretched out before me. David would have the throne, the crown, the line of descendants that [God] had promised him. … My task would be two-fold: to stand up to him, and to stand by him. To awaken his conscience, and to salve the pain this would cause him. To help him to endure through the hard days and years that lay ahead of him.”
Natan plans to “change” David, in other words. One does not have to be a prophet to see that this won’t work.
Natan never makes good on his vow to stand up to his king, and the destructive David does not change in the slightest. It took all of three paragraphs for our hero to go from valiantly denouncing a tyrant to slinking back to a life of subjugation. The damage King David is still to do, however, will continue until the final pages of the book and resonate down through history.
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