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Rodinsky's Room by Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair
by: Harry Chinaski Wednesday 07 April 2004
I came to this book essentially as an Iain Sinclair fan. Over the last few months I've managed to read most of his non-fiction stuff (the novels? well, they're so dense and elliptical, I'll head there sometime soon. As for the poetry...) and found it to be some of the best writing I've ever come across. He's the latest manifestation of the London spirit; that narcissistic being that records and documents the city's inner life and myths. He walks and records, and like a conduit, transfers the stories of the city onto the page in liquid prose. He is, in the strictest sense of the word, an occult writer, in that he reveals what is hidden, seeking out the darkened areas, linking arcane areas and stories. He's mesmerising.
Sinclair has been following and documenting the tales born from the space of Rodinsky's Room for some years. He was contacted by Rachel Lichtenstein after she read an article of his in the Guardian. She'd been led to believe that he was the first man into the room after it had been opened. He wasn't but he'd been captured by it and it's contents like many others.
Rodinsky lived in Princelet Street, off of Brick Lane in the East End, in a garret room above a disused synagogue. At different times there was up to 4 people living in what essentailly was a tiny studio flat. After the death of his mother and the hospitalization of his sister, Rodinsky stayed on as 'caretaker' of the synagogue. The room became a kind of prison for the socially maladjusted Rodinsky, and he became a total recluse, studying by candlelight the ancient Jewish texts and various arcane languages. He disappeared in 1969 and the room lay dormant and undisturbed for 10 years. When it was opened it was perfectly preserved. Papers were strewn about the place and there were huge numbers of notebooks, some filled with cabbalistic diagrams, others with mute glyphs of forgotten tongues. By his bed there was a solidified cup of tea. Unsurprisingly, it caught the imagination of anyone who entered. Lichtenstein became obsessed with it.
Lichtenstein is first and foremost an artist but her first foray into writing is remarkable. Her narrative is driven by not only her thirst for discovery about David Rodisnky but also a need to discover her own past, and her own Jewishness. Thus, her part of the book becomes almost a paen to the disappearing world of the Jewish East End; but also to her past, her origins in central Europe. Her tale is littered with arcana and strange coincedences: fortuitous meetings with long lost relatives of Rodinsky; a bizarre but moving encounter with a cabbalist Rabbi in Israel; uncanny discoveries in births and deaths records offices'. It is almost as if she was destined to tell the story of Rodinsky, and in so doing, discover her own. Her open and honest style is a neat counterpoise to the fluid mythologising of Sinclair; and it is also deeply, emotionally affecting.
The book, eventually, is many things: an exploration of a modern myth; a document of a disappearing culture; an addition to the palimpsest of London's history; a voyage of self-discovery; a wonderful story. Ultimately it defies categorisation. I can't recommend it highly enough.
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