The Elixir of Immortality

Written by Gabi Gleichmann
Review by Ilysa Magnus

Ari Spinoza, the last surviving member of his family, is dying. Childless and at the end of his family’s long line of sons going back 17 generations, Ari is the sole repository of almost 1000 years of Spinoza family history and a dangerous, potentially world-altering, manuscript containing a formula for ensuring immortality developed by one of his famous ancestors. At this crossroads, we meet Ari in the present.

In a rambling, often disjointed narrative beginning with the Espinosas in the 11th century, Ari regularly deviates from the Spinoza family history (which is often fascinating) by reporting disconnected and, from this reader’s perspective, unilluminating stories told to him by his great-uncle. Ari knows that his method of storytelling is choppy and annoying, but he frankly doesn’t care and says as much.

Spinoza history meanders through Moorish Spain, through the Spanish Inquisition and Torquemada, though the French Revolution and Voltaire, to Hitler and Stalin. Great and respected philosophers, physicians, scientists and teachers fill the pages of this chronicle. The Spinoza family history mirrors Jewish experience through the centuries – from grudging acceptance, to expulsion, to genocide, often with humor, typically with great philosophical grace. Regrettably, at some point, I just didn’t care. I felt like I was slogging through molasses. I wasn’t looking for a fun, breezy read, but this effort, I believe, could have been much more than it ultimately became for me.

It is indisputable that Gleichmann is a talented writer – Hungarian, raised in Sweden, his debut novel was published in Norwegian and is beautifully translated here. The Eastern European Jewish experience is never very far from the author’s world view. However, this saga of a famous – and sometimes infamous – Jewish family might well have been a stellar debut, but for me, the stars did not shine.