Books: The Novel and the Tel Aviv Tenant
If you want to know what really goes on in the daily life of Tel Aviv, you need not stroll along its broad boulevards, shop at its fashionable boutiques or sit down at its stylish cafés. For an impression of the seamier side of Tel Aviv life, you need not even set foot into the white elephant of the White City, its New Central Bus Station. Rather, you would be wise to consider the tenants of the city’s modest apartment houses, as several of today’s Israeli novelists have done. Three novels, available in English—Returning Lost Loves by Yehoshua Kenaz (translated by Dalya Bilu; Steerforth Press, 263 pp. $14, paper), Human Parts by Orly Castel-Bloom (translated by Dalya Bilu; David R. Godine, 250 pp. $24.95) and The Flying Camel and the Golden Hump by Aharon Megged (translated by Vivian Eden; Toby Press, 334 pp. $14.95, paper)—offer edifying examples.
Made up of a series of interlocking cityscape novellas,Returning Lost Loves is an urbanite’s chronicle of real life in Tel Aviv in the 1990s. The stage is an old-fashioned walk-up apartment building in northern Tel Aviv, where the lives of the characters cross. The residents include Gabi, a young woman in search of sexual pleasure and adventure; Aviram, a real estate agent whose apartment shares a bedroom wall with Gabi’s; Aryeh Shwartz, the head of the building’s House Committee; and Jacob, a stroke victim whose family is trying to shunt him off to a nursing home.
Gabi’s libertine ways are based on a philosophical position that soon turns into a psychological obsession. She is carrying on a liaison dangereusewith Hezi, a business executive who has rented this apartment for that express purpose. Aviram becomes obsessed with Gabi, whose lovemaking groans he hears through the walls.
Jacob does not talk, but that does not prevent him from narrating. He has fallen in love—perforce, a platonic love that gives him true romantic happiness—with Linda, his Filipina caretaker. Linda is involved in the stories of Gabi, whose apartment she cleans on Sundays, and of Aviram, whose path she crosses inadvertently, in an unlucky moment.
Shwartz Aryeh (he signs his name the old-fashioned way) writes letters to the absentee owners of the love-nest apartment; these missives reveal a strong-willed man whose powers are waning but who is determined to fight on for what is right.
The novel’s central theme has to do with the loss of vibrancy and vitality experienced by all the main characters.
Kenaz’s novel enters into a dialogue with both the Jewish and Israeli textual traditions. Literary and cinematic allusions abound, including offhand references to the Book of Judges, critiques of the movie Backstreet (an uncanny retelling of Gabi’s story) and even a discussion of musical settings by Vivaldi and Monteverdi of Psalm 127. And then there is “Returns Lost Love,” a story Gabi overheard on a bus. The tale, from which the novel takes its title, not only mirrors Gabi’s own, but is a rewriting, in an Israeli and yet romantic key, of Bernard Malamud’s “The Silver Crown” and its shady miracle worker.
There is further reason for the novel’s pessimism. Aviram is also an observer of Tel Aviv humanity:
…in this whole happy, hedonistic city, with its pubs crowded every night, with its pretty radiant girls, with its strong, healthy youngsters, its rich, successful men who can get whatever they want, its theaters and concerts and exhibitions and intellectuals and journalists and soldiers and athletes—wherever I look, as if some evil spell has been cast upon me, always, at every turn, all I see is misery and old age and illness and filth.
In this passage, the novel gives us the feeling that, with Kenaz, we are dealing with an Israeli and Jewish writer who knows how to paint a vivid picture of the stark reality that is a part of Tel Aviv life today.
Orly Castel-Bloom’s novel is set in several apartments in Tel Aviv and its surroundings (with an excursion to an apartment in Jerusalem as well). Human Parts takes place during a winter of Israel’s discontent early in the 21st century. It is not enough that, in the author’s hyperbolic telling, Israel has just gone through eight years of devastating drought; now it has been victimized by a cold weather system from the North Pole. Add to that a health crisis that Castel-Bloom sarcastically dubs the “Saudi Flu.” Of course, since this is Israel, we are also in the midst of another intifada, with suicide bombers wreaking havoc across the land. Even more depressing, the country is subject to an economic crisis of major proportions. To illustrate the effects of this situation, Castel-Bloom guides us into the apartments of several Tel Avivians.
The lives of Liat Dubnov, Iris Ventura and Tasaro Tasama are bound together by their connections to Adir Bergson, a forty-something retiree who made a fortune in real estate, even owning a laundromat. Adir, an intellectual resigned to not being able to find meaning in his life, is the half-brother of Liat, a student of Aramaic. Together, they own apartments on Amos Street, where Liat lives; on Ezekiel Street, where they grew up; on Zacharia Street; and a larger apartment at the corner of Nahum Street, which is being rented by the owner of a make-up school, Another Face.
Liat never sets foot outside her apartment except to go to her therapist and for trysts with her married lover. And then, to show that even the prosperous are susceptible to the general situation, Liat dies suddenly of the Saudi Flu.
Enduring even more pain than a woman who dies is one who lives. Iris, Adir’s ex-lover, is a divorcée whose adulterous husband has plunged her into such unspeakable poverty that she can’t even afford to use the dryer at the laundromat. Full of failed stratagems to get out of poverty, she schemes to become religious and get on charity rolls and, suffering from a painful tooth, she contrives to get free dental care by sidling up to a dentist. In the end, she is “saved” by Adir, who offers her a job as caterer for his sister’s shiva.
Tasaro, a beautiful Ethiopian model and Adir’s current lover, has suffered from racism and poverty. Though she has been rescued from the drug scene of the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station, she is not affected by the current wave of Israeli catastrophes. In fact, she is well on her way to becoming a television star as Israel’s Lottery Girl.
Illustrating the poverty into which the country has descended, Castel-Bloom takes us, with a television crew, into the apartment of Boaz and Kati Beit Halahmi, in the Ganei Aviv neighborhood of Lod, nine miles from Tel Aviv. Boaz suffers from the aftereffects of an accident and from losing a share in his family’s chicken farm because his parents disowned him when he married a Kurdish woman. He has lost his moxie and his job and has become a layabout. Kati supports the family by doing “spong’a,” mopping up, in several apartment buildings and banks. On television, she plays the race card and appeals successfully for clothing so that her children will not come down with the Saudi Flu. Unhappy with her lot and inspired by the TV crew’s make-up technicians, she decides to become a cosmetologist and finds herself in the Tel Aviv apartment of Another Face. She connives to pay for the instruction by blackmailing a bank clerk, using a technique she learned from a daytime soap opera.
A fictional president of Israel travels in his limousine to pay shiva call after shiva call and by this means connects all the dots of the novel. That almost all streets in the book are named after biblical prophets leads us to believe that the narrative is intended as a foreshadowing. The bad news is that this novel portends only bad news and offers no options for salvation.
What is extraordinarily positive about the apartment building in Megged’s The Flying Camel and the Golden Hump is that almost all of its tenants seem to have a multifaceted life with ambiguous character traits. Every one, you might say, is worthy of a novel in his or her own right. In fact, Hedva Porat, of the second floor, and Heinz Hirsch, on three, are each the main protagonist of an earlier Megged novel. Hedva and Heinz come together with their neighbors in a raucous meeting of the Tenants’ Association, which takes place in the second-floor apartment of Victoria and Albert Azoulai. (Their names are a pun that Megged, a former cultural attaché to London, makes with impish glee.) Albert is a policeman who is constantly away from home. As to Victoria, she has taken the building in hand and keeps an eye on what goes on.
At the center of this novel, living on the third floor, is Kalman Keren, a writer who is working on a translation into Hebrew of Rabelais and is writing a novel that he immodestly characterizes as “a book after which it will be impossible to write any more books.” The book will take place at a Passover Seder and is to be structured around the 14 stages of the Haggada.
Unfortunately, when the tenant in the apartment above Kalman’s passes away, a bitter, sour-faced literary critic, Naphtali Schatz, moves in. The “pimp of criticism,” as one of his neighbors calls Schatz, is the author of an innovative work calledAgainst Allegory, whose title is more alluring than its content.
The human problem remains: How can you have a critic living on top of a writer? And a critic who has a fetchingly beautiful and unhappy wife besides? This Naomi has her origins in the idyllic countryside of Ein Harod. When she goes up to the roof, not only to visit Kalman’s rabbit hutch but also to sunbathe and to be seen sunbathing, the reader finds himself in the shade of King David’s adventure with Bathsheba.
There is a great deal of adultery in the novel. Hedva, an aguna, has a child by her artist lover; and Kalman not only steals Naomi from her husband, he also is seduced by Victoria.
But Megged does not intend to show the predominance of adultery in a major world city. Nor does he intend to argue, when Kalman runs away to Petah Tikva with Naomi, for the superiority of the suburban life over the urban. Instead, he raises the whodunit to a literary level. When Kalman returns to Tel Aviv from the countryside, he discovers that someone has murdered his rabbits. Is it the caustic cuckolded critic gone mad? Or is it the poetic Victoria, a woman scorned? There are always two sides to this Rabelaisian farce of Tel Aviv.
Kenaz, Castel-Bloom and Megged are striving to paint a realistic portrait of life in Tel Aviv. Kenaz’s mosaic adheres closest to the program, though there are elements of farce in the scenes he depicts. One of the messages of the exaggerated realism of Castel-Bloom seems to be that once you put real people into the picture you have to color the landscape with nuance. With great gusto, Megged takes us into the realm of fantasy, with tales of flying camels and golden humps. But in the final analysis, in all three tales of apartment life, there are only real people, living out their multifaceted lives in bayit meshutaf, co-op apartment buildings in Tel Aviv.
Service and Rescue
EL AL: Israel’s Flying Star
by Marvin G. Goldman. (Airways International, 192 pp. $24.95)
Marvin G. Goldman, the world’s largest collector of El Al memorabilia, has chronicled Israel’s commercial aviation and its humanitarian efforts in 10 chapters and more than 100 illustrations—historical photos, posters, postcards and artwork.
El Al was “born” in 1948 when Chaim Weizmann had to travel to the nascent state from Geneva for his inauguration as Israel’s first president. Government officials borrowed an aircraft, pilots and flight crew from the Israel Air Force, installed a sofa and served food from a kosher restaurant.
Aviation aficionados will be interested to learn that El Al’s first fleet of DC-4s was acquired in 1949. On June 25, 1950, the airline inaugurated the first official Israel-United States round-trip. After the Sinai War in 1956, when other countries had stopped flying to Israel, El Al finally received full support from the public and government because it was the only airline that could be counted on to continue operating.
Another first: El Al hired its first female pilot, Merav Schwartz, in 2001.
The airline’s rescue and other operations are the stuff of drama: In May 1960, the airline transported Adolf Eichmann from Brazil to Israel, where the Nazi was put on trial and hanged. Operation Exodus, in 1990, brought 120,000 Soviet Jews to Israel. El Al jumbo jets and Hercules C-130 transport planes brought Ethiopian Jews out of Sudan in three operations—Moses, Joshua and Solomon—from 1985 to 1991. Operation Solomon rescued 14,325 people in 34 aircraft in the course of 36 hours.
El Al continues to be recognized as an outstanding model for security, though the costs of safety are huge—$80 million in 2007, with the government paying half of that.
We take El Al’s technological development for granted, but Goldman’s album not only takes us back in time but also allows us to savor a moment of pride in the airline’s notable achievements. —Zelda Shluker
A Novel of Klass
by Curt Leviant. (Livingston Press, 340 pp. $27 cloth; $16.95, paper)
Curt Leviant’s Ayzik Klass is one of the liveliest, most touching and absurd characters to mangle the English language since Dickens’s Mrs. Malaprop.
Klass tells us, in this marvelous, quirky book, that he “didn’t survived” what he calls the Halacoast; he “just didn’t died.” He says he’s a “Yiddish painter” — but unlike Chagall’s vision, his is anything but nostalgic.
He lost father, mother, wife and children in the Shoah, and “[i]n his paintings even the light of candles was dark…. [T]he eyes of his Jews were always in dysfocus. One eye was here; it took part in the life of the paintings. The other—there—leaped forward in terminal prophecy and viewed what six million would see.”
This deft imagining takes the breath away; one wishes there were indeed such “Yiddish paintings,” although they might be too painful to look at.
The book’s characters include Griselda, Klass’s meshugena second wife; Peter Rifkes Breslauer, an art gallery owner; and an assortment of tromperniks.
Though the book boasts not one illustration, it could well have been called A Portrait of the Artist. We “see” him early on: “Klass seemed robust, but was fragile within, like fine crystal with an invisible but still immensely vulnerable crack.”
We see him also as an aging, overweight man smelling of herring who grips you by the lapel and forces you to notice his genius. (Breslauer, who should know, says so: “If genius was a combination of imagination, superlative command of technique, a startling world view, and the creation of one’s own complete and authentic universe, then Klass was a genius.”)
One painting is called “Haltn a Shmues.” It’s Yiddish for “to have a conversation,” Klass tells Breslauer. In the painting, two Jews face each other, palms out, “holding…floating Hebrew/Yiddish letters on their hand.”
“See?” Klass says. “This is painting Yiddish. Haltn a Shmues, yes. But haltn means ‘to hold.’ So I take the Yiddish expression and I paint it.”
The men are “[h]olding a talk. Holding the live, the vibrating Yiddish words in their hands.”
Speaking of vibrating Yiddish words, Klass and his sworn enemy, Gimpl Englander, batter each other with them at a hilarious gathering of Yiddishists.
The plot—about a botched art auction, husband-and-wife bicker- ing and backbiting in the Yiddishist community in 1970s New York—moves backward, forward, inside and out, somewhat like the hair- pin turns Klass and Griselda take chasing each other around their bookcase.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice wants books with pictures and conversations. Klass has both—although the pictures are made of words. The conversations are so fresh and sharp and idiosyncratic that I still hear Klass and Griselda bickering in my head. They are shouting at each other “Eedyot!”
Artful play is at work here, but—as in all of Leviant’s novels—it is play for mortal stakes. That Klass, whom the Shoah could not kill, lives in these pages is something of a miracle. —Rebecca Kaplan Boroson
Rebecca Kaplan Boroson is editor of The Jewish Standard and The Jewish Community News.
Chronicling the Crimes: Summer Reading
These new thrillers take you from Hamas-Fatah corruption in Gaza to the agony of seeking Palestinian-Jewish peace in Israel, from topsy-turvy Fascism in London and a Chinese-Jewish connection in New York’s Chinatown by way of Shanghai. There are also menacing Moscow, thuggish Berlin and Old City Hall in Toronto.
By Zelda Shluker
Samaritan’s Secret: An Omar Yussef Mystery
by Matt Beynon Rees.(Soho Books, 310 pp. $24)
Matt Beynon Rees’s third Omar Yussuf whodunit finds the budding, middle-aged criminologist visiting Nablus to attend the wedding of a young Palestinian policeman, who takes him along on a case of a missing Samaritan Torah scroll. The scroll has been mysteriously returned, but a prominent young man from the Samaritan community is found brutally murdered. The world-weary Yussuf is an educator and historian passionately concerned about his people’s welfare and tenacious in righting wrongs. Aware of the corruption and danger in the Palestinian world of Hamas-Fatah violence and Israeli incursions, he persists in his investigation. He is not only looking for a killer and “dirty” files on top Fatah operatives (which could ruin the life of someone close to him), but most important, he is seeking documents hidden by the murdered man. These documents show where Fatah’s Old Man had secreted $300 million—the immediate return of which is necessary or the World Bank will cut off all funding to the Palestinians.
The Last Testament: A Novel
by Sam Bourne.
(Harper, 448 pp $26.99, cloth; HarperLuxe Large Print, 624 pp. $26.99, paper)
Israel and the Palestinians are on the verge of a peace agreement when Shimon Guttman, a scholar and nationalist, is shot trying to approach the Israeli prime minister in the middle of a public speech. Was Guttman intending to disrupt a gathering for the peace he was opposed to—or had he come to deliver important new information that would “change everything,” as his wife, Rachel, attested before she, too, was found dead. To save the peace agreement, Maggie Costello, an American negotiator, is called in and teams up with Uri Guttman, son of the murdered couple. While seeking whoever murdered the Guttmans, they discover connections to other killings.
The trail of blood leads back to a clay tablet stolen from the national museum in Iraq during the chaotic early days of the bombing of Baghdad by the Americans: It is engraved with Abraham’s last will and testament to his sons Isaac and Ishmael. Amid acts of treachery from friends and foes alike, the author (Sam Bourne is the pseudonym for British journalist Jonathan Freedland) offers a revelation that might be applauded by cockeyed optimists or reviled as traitorous.
Half a Crown
by Jo Walton.
(Tor/Tom Doherty Associates, 320 pp. $25.95)
Jo Walton, a Welsh-born writer now living in Montreal, sets her story in London, where a global peace conference is taking place. Reminiscent of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Walton, too, presents an alternate history. In Chabon’s book, the Jews, having lost the 1948 War of Independence, are living in Alaska; in Half a Crown, Western democracies have lost World War II, and Britain, Germany and Japan are overseeing the final partition of the world. With Hitler victorious, Fascism has become the prevailing ideology. Jews are less than second-class citizens, accused of sabotaging the economy and put in camps, where they are either used for labor or exterminated.
But there are pockets of resistors who circumvent the deportations and run secret rescue operations. These include Commander Carmichael, head of the Watch (not quite a KGB-type government department), whose ward, Elvira, like Queen Esther, finds herself in a situation that demands that she speak up to save not just the Jews but England itself.
The Natural Selection: An Historical Mystery
by Ona Russell.
(Sunstone Press, 307 pp. $22.95)
In this historical fiction, Sarah Kaufman, an officer of the court in Toledo, Ohio, looks forward to a restful vacation in Knoxville, Tennessee, with her cousin, Lena Greenberg, a professor of English at a local college. Almost immediately on arrival, however, she learns that a popular professor has been murdered. Reluctantly, Sarah is drawn in to help solve the case. Concurrently, in Dayton, Ohio, the Scopes trial is taking place, and on learning that Professor Manhoff was supposed to meet with H.L. Mencken, Sarah travels to meet the famous journalist and literary critic to learn more about Manhoff’s belief in natural selection: the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life. Suspicion soon falls on a black student whom the college had rejected—despite his superior qualifications—on Manhoff’s say-so.
While Sarah goes about resolving the mystery, there is much reflection not only on anti-Semitism in the South but also on the biases that two ambitious and gifted Jewish women encounter in a society that only grudgingly offers them opportunities.
The Shanghai Moon: A Lydia Chin/Bill Smith Novel
by S.J. Rozan.
(Minotaur Books, 373 pp. $24.95)
When fellow PI Joel Pilarsky asks Lydia Chin to work on a case involving missing gems, the trail leads not just to New York’s Chinatown but to the slowly unfolding history of German Jewish refugees in Shanghai, where siblings Rosalie and Paul Gilder were sent to escape the Nazis. Chin is mesmerized by Rosalie’s letters home that describe life in Shanghai; the letters stop when she learns that her parents were killed. There is political, familial and financial intrigue in Rosalie’s East Asian family—she marries an upper-class Chinese man—and the story of the Shanghai Moon, a pendant that she is supposed to have fashioned from family jewelry, takes on mythic proportion and leaves murder its it wake.
by Daniel Silva.
(Putnam, 433 pp. $26.95, cloth; Signet, 528 pp. $9.99, paper)
As in all Gabriel Allon espionage thrillers, writer Daniel Silva’s plot revolves around current events. As the title indicates, the rules of old Moscow still apply: Russia remains a totalitarian, spy-ridden society aspiring to rebuild its empire; the KGB continues to function under a new name; and multimillionaire businessmen are getting rich by selling arms and weapons to dangerous groups like Al Qaeda.
The biggest dealer is Ivan Kharkov, and the only way to stop his activities is through his wife, Elena, who has signaled her willingness to help various go-betweens. With the aid of art-savvy American and British operatives, Allon, an occasional Mossad operative and art restorer, travels to Russia to try to outmaneuver the master dealmaker.
The Illumination: A Novel
by Jill Gregory and Karen Tintori.
(St. Martin’s, 310 pp. $24.95)
The writing duo of Jill Gregory and Karen Tintori construct stories whose direst consequences are nothing less than earth shattering, as they did in The Book of Names. In The Illumination, megalomaniacal terrorists have stolen a pendant that contains the original light of Creation. It was originally found by a reporter in the Iraqi desert who, not realizing its value, sent the “bauble” to her anthropologist sister in the States. When the reporter is found dead, her sibling sets off to Brooklyn, Washington, Rome and Jerusalem to uncover the pendant’s true value—even as matters of world peace and war hinge on the outcome.
The Memorist: A Novel of Suspense
by M.J. Rose.
(Mira, 460 pp. $24.95)
Another catastrophe of worldwide proportions is imminent inThe Memorist. An Israeli reporter explores secret burial chambers under Vienna’s greatest concert hall; he has lost his wife, son and other family members to a terrorist bomb in Israel and is planning to set underground explosives timed to go off when there is a prestigious gathering for a concert, thus avenging their deaths.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Meer Logan, 31, has had since childhood a recurring memory of a decorated dark wood box that held within it music. When her father, Jeremy Logan, head of the Judaica department at an auction house in Vienna, finds the box of her dreams, it contains a hidden letter from Beethoven about a “memory” flute, whose vibrations make people remember past lives. In the wrong hands, unleashing the music Beethoven hid would devastate the world. These fears are about to be realized as thefts and murders bring the world to the brink. Eventually, the book’s disparate stories connect to restore equilibrium.
by Steven M. Forman.
(TOR/Forge, 332 pp. $24.95)
A retired Jewish “super” cop from Boston, Eddie Perlmutter has come to Boca Raton to ease his arthritic joints in the Florida warmth. But you can’t keep down the fearless one-time boxer and coach (or his sexual appetite). He is drawn into a confrontation with Aryan Army followers who are trying to bring their brand of hate to Boca’s resident Jews and Caribbean expats. Along the way, he solves a three-year-old murder case. Forman’s humor is smart and inspired, and this first novel is a welcome addition to the mystery genre.
Getting Old Is a Disaster
by Rita Lakin.
(Bantam Dell, 368 pp. $6.99)
Lakin’s fifth book in the Gladdy Gold PI series includes the usual suspects: five sleuthing friends, ages 73-plus, in a Florida condo complex. On the agenda: Will Gladdy and Jack, a retired cop, ever consummate their romance? Why is Enya, concentration camp survivor, having nightmares? Why has Evvy’s ex-husband suddenly turned up? Who is Grandpa Bandit and why does he rob banks for odd sums? But the biggest mystery is the identity of the skeleton unearthed during a damaging thunderstorm. The group of five leave no stone unturned to get answers.
2020 Vision: A Novel
by Roy S. Neuberger.
(Feldheim, 328 pp. $24.99)
When a massive attack by a network of terrorist sleeper cells devastates the United States, the fictional Roy and Leah (the story has many autobiographical details from the lives of the author and his wife, both returnees to observant Judaism) use their ingenuity and faith to face the evil and struggle to make their way to Israel.
Moses the Heretic: A Novel
by Daniel Spiro.
(Aegis Press, 306 pp. $21.95)
Rabbi Moses Levine is obsessed with following in the footsteps of his namesake, but his ideas—about the Arab-Israeli conflict, immortality and God—are heretical. This modern-day prophet infuriates as well as inspires.
Shadow and Light
by Jonathan Rabb.
(Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 371 pp. $26)
In Jonathan Rabb’s second crime story featuring Nikolai Hoffner, the half German, half-Russian Jewish detective inspector for Berlin’s criminal investigations, it is 1927 and Hoffner is looking at the death of a producer at a Berlin megastudio. The overly complicated story involves a secret society that wants to get hold of a revolutionary sound recording device so they could take over the studio. There is also a secret plan by thuggish right-wingers to militarize the country and begin a new war on the Continent.
Rabb is a wonderfully descriptive writer, capturing the frenzied life in post-World War I Berlin and creating a psychically wounded protagonist who, in his earlier book, Rosa, lost his wife to criminals, and in this one learns that one of his sons has become a vicious National Socialist.
Old City Hall: A Novel
by Robert Rotenberg.
(Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 372 pp. $26)
Canadian criminal lawyer Rotenberg’s debut thriller does not have a Jewish plot, but the main detective, Ari Greene, is the devoted son of a Holocaust survivor who occasionally gives him insight into his cases. In his current crime, a radio talk show host is accused of murdering his wife and refuses to speak to anyone or defend himself. The story, set in Toronto, involves surprises and light touches of humanity that are appealing. The well drawn plot and characters make this suspenseful and delightful reading.
Rhyming Life & Death: A Novel
by Amos Oz. Translated by Nicholas de Lange.
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 155 pp. $23)
Recursion, thy name is Amos Oz. At least in his latest work of fiction, a short, ironic tale of a seven-hour night journey by an unnamed Author who starts his incremental, doubling-back fantasy on a hot and sultry evening in Tel Aviv. The time is the early ’80s. The Author, a well-known personality, has been invited to the Shunia Shor and Seven Victims of the Quarry Attack Community Center to comment on his latest work. First, however, there will be some blowhard introductory remarks by the center’s administrator, a postmodern literary critic, and a selective reading from the Author’s work by a shy but earnest young woman.
Bored, overwhelmed by the heat, already late because he dawdled at a local café observing the legs of a waitress and slightly agitated at having to go through, once again, a predictable Q&A routine about his literary and philosophical intentions, the Author zones out to imagine a fictional life for the people he sees around him, starting with the waitress, but going on to include a once-famous Zionist poet whose best-known work is called “Rhyming Life and Death.” At the center, he also invents stories and backstories for people he sees.
Rhyming Life & Death teases the reader to wonder what is real and what is imagined in the Author’s life, though, of course, the game starts with Oz, who has penned this enigmatic narrative. The story involves the Author’s nighttime peregrinations, his projected fantasies and his deconstructionist revisions of those fantasies. The Author even allows some of his characters at some point to imagine him imagining them. Phrases, images and lines recur, especially rhymes from the fictitious poet Tsefania Beit-Halachmi, an exemplar of the old trade union movement. What is certainly real, however, is the power of Oz’s prose, which is especially evocative of the sounds and smells of decrepit Israeli streets and his marvelously charged erotic language, as the Author transfers his sexual fantasies from the waitress to the mousy reader.
At the end, Oz provides a list of all the characters that figure in the book—39 in all, including the Author. Oz tells the tale in the present-tense third person, thus making the Author part of Oz’s fantasy, his writer someone who doesn’t agree with what he tells his audiences but knows how to deliver the goods with “an expression that combines loneliness, cultural sensitivity and sadness” as he piles “lie upon lie.”
And yet, out of this complex riff on the intentions, processes and effects of fiction, Oz seems to take up seriously the question the Author won’t: What should literature do or not do? One of the Author’s invented characters, a veteran teacher, has a pretty good answer: “At the very least literature should not preen itself on mocking us and picking at our wounds, as modern writers in our days do ad nauseam.”
Is the Author (who is said to be an accountant) one of these? “He wrote more or less the way he dreamed or masturbated,” a mixture of “compulsion, enthusiasm, despair, disgust and wretchedness.” Not Oz.
by Bernard Schlink. Translated by Michael Henry Heim.
(Pantheon, 260 pp. $24)
The Reader made Bernhard Schlink, a German writer, law professor and judge, widely popular—and the film version only deepened his appeal. Homecoming is the first novel to follow on the heels of The Reader and, as such, it will surely find its way onto best-seller lists. Some critics of The Reader were put off by the whiff of moral equivalency that turned Hanna, the illiterate Nazi prison guard, into as much a “victim” as those she guarded. Critics of this stripe will have even more to complain about with Homecoming, which explores not only how we know what we know but also how we can be certain that “good” and “evil” are immutable categories.
As the lawyer-narrator of The Reader puts it, The Odyssey is “not the story of a homecoming…. [Rather] The Odyssey is the story of a motion both purposeful and purposeless, successful and futile.” As the template for Western stories of return,The Odyssey figures prominently in Schlink’s latest tale of a man in search of his father, his past and his identity.
Peter Debauer, the novel’s weak-willed protagonist, recounts the major influences of his life: the summers he spent with his grandparents in Switzerland, the memories of his strong, hard-edged mother, the books he read and the women he loved. What remains missing, however, is any certitude about how his father lived and died, and how one can tell the difference between a hero and a traitor.
Among Peter’s formative readings are the galleys of a manuscript entitled Novels for Your Reading Pleasure and Entertainment. In the fragments of one novel, Peter follows the Homeric adventures of a German soldier named Karl, only to find that the final pages, in which Karl at long last returns home, are missing.
Peter’s adult life (he becomes an editor) is spent trying to piece together an increasingly complex puzzle: Is he a surrogate for Karl (or, perhaps, Karl a surrogate for him?). Did his father write this thinly disguised Homeric tale and, if so, what became of his life after he left home? Finally, how do a wide range of possible “fathers” fit into a coherent pattern?
Schlink uses a quiet, understated style to tell his disturbing tale. Along the way, there are echoes of the celebrated case of Paul de Man, the literary deconstructionist who taught at Yale and who, some would argue, used high theory as a way to obscure the anti-Semitic journalism he wrote as a Nazi collaborator during World War II. Schlink also invokes the “obedience to authority” studies of Stanley Milgram, in which college students were divided into “torturers” and “victims.” Taken together, what these various tributaries come to is Hannah Arendt’s contention about the “banality of evil.”
Those affected by the Holocaust can be divided into the murderers, the murdered and the bystanders. Schlink raises tough, important questions about the last, and largest, grouping. What can Peter learn from John de Baur (ostensibly his father) about these matters? He follows assorted crumbs of the paternity trail until he reaches Columbia University in New Yorki, where he does his best to understand deconstruction and de Baur’s infuriating book, The Odyssey of Law:
I learned that deconstruction is the separation of a text from what the author meant it to say and its transformation into what the reader makes of it…then the responsibility for murder falls on neither the real murderers nor their victims—they having lost their existence—but on their contemporaries who lodge the complaints and prosecute the plaintiffs.
Peter insists, again and again, that he does not like his father, but he is fatally attracted to his agile arguments. At the end, however, Peter returns home, without the face-to-face confrontation he had long dreamt about but with a sense of having attained a hard-won self.
Homecoming is not an easy read (nor was it meant to be), but it is worth the effort, if only for the glimpse it gives into the struggles many Germans share with Schlink about accountability and the law, about the values that remain solid and those that melt into the air—and, most of all, about the place of love in this shivery arithmetic.—Sanford Pinsker
The Girl From Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home
by Sadia Shepard.
(Penguin Press, 366 pp. $25.95, cloth; Penguin Books, 384 pp. $16, paper)
Sadia Shepard has the kind of religious background that would be unbelievable if it weren’t true. Her maternal grandmother, Rachel Jacobs, an Indian-born Jew, practiced Islam as an adult after becoming the third wife of a Muslim man. Her mother, born in Pakistan, married an American Christian who then converted to Islam. Shepard herself was raised outside Boston as a Muslim, although the family also celebrated Christmas.
Judaism wasn’t a part of her family’s observance, but Shepard always felt it was a part of her because of her grandmother. As she puts it, “Three parents. Three religions. It sounds unusual and fantastic to me now. As a child it was merely our topic sentence.” (Luckily, considering recent revelations about the falseness of some memoirs, there have been no reports that anything in Shepard’s account is fabricated.)
The Girl From Foreign begins just after 9/11: Shepard, a young filmmaker, travels to India on a Fulbright scholarship for a year to learn more about the Bene Israel, a part of India’s shrinking Jewish community that believes it is one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. As Shepard admits, the Fulbright is mainly an excuse for her to find out more about her grandmother’s Jewish past; indeed, she had promised her grandmother she would learn more about the community.
The book chronicles her adapting to life in India as well as her travels throughout the country and to Pakistan, where her grandmother moved after India gained independence in 1947. In addition to visiting the Bene Israel, who believe they arrived in India after a shipwreck more than 2,000 years ago, Shepard teaches drama to young Indian Jews, some of whom are planning to move to Israel. She even attends High Holiday services in Mumbai (which Shepard refers to as Bombay). Shepard intersperses tales of her time abroad with loving memories of her grandmother, who lived at times with Shepard’s family during the latter years of her life.
Memoirs of young adults seeking their identities can feel forced, as can the searches themselves. Rekhev, one of the friends Shepard makes during her time in India, puts the criticism this way: “What you are seeking, in fact, is not greater clarity but greater disorder.” But for the most part, The Girl From Foreign is largely free of cliché. Shepard writes movingly about her multiple searches for identity: as an American who is living abroad right after the World Trade Center bombings, as a young filmmaker struggling to find material for her project and as a woman trying to understand herself by understanding her grandmother’s compelling past.
Shepard avoids some difficult issues. She seems uncomfortable when Indian Jews tell her they are uprooting their lives to move to Israel, but doesn’t explain why. What Shepard learns about her grandmother’s marriage and death provides her with opportunities to explore how the religious tolerance she embodies played out in her grandmother’s life. Unfortunately, Shepard fails to delve into these vexing matters. But her grandmother’s life is so interesting that most readers will not mind. —Peter Ephross
Books in Brief
Hurry Down Sunshine
by Michael Greenberg.
(Other Press, 248 pp. $22)
Writer Michael Greenberg looks back to the summer of 1996 and describes life in a top-floor tenement apartment in New York, adjustments to a new marriage—and how his talented, intelligent and joyful 15-year-old daughter became incoherent and delusional. This to-hell-and-back memoir is written with intensity and pain. —Susan Adler
A Modern Orthodox Life: Sermons and Columns of Rabbi Emanuel Rackman
(Ktav, 308 pp. $25)
The forthright expression of modern Orthodox Rabbi Emanuel Rackman’s love for all Jews and his concern for the importance of Jewish justice are apparent throughout this collection of 13 sermons and 62 published columns. Rackman, who had been the chancellor of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, died in 2008 at age 98. The legacy found in these pages teaches us lessons we still need to learn. —Zelda Shluker
Tel Aviv Short Stories
edited by Shelley Goldman and Joanna Yehiel.
(Ang-Lit Press, 503 pp. $23.99)
The 53 stories of diverse points of view (and quality) tell tales of intimacy, disappointment, camaraderie and stoicism and take place in and around Tel Aviv. The writers are living the Israeli life but nevertheless give imagination free reign in their native English. —S.A.
More Tel Aviv Stories
For another way of looking at life in Tel Aviv through fiction, Barbara Rogan, in Café Nevo (Atheneum), sits us down on Dizengoff Street and paints for us a rainbow-hued panorama of Tel Aviv types.
“Closing the Sea,” a short story by Yehudit Katzir with a marvelous description of Tel Aviv’s labyrinthine Dizengoff Center, is in the anthology Israel: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (Whereabouts Press), edited by Michael Gluzman and Naomi Seidman. —J.L.
Top 10 Jewish Best Sellers
1. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. (Penguin, $15, paper)
2. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. (St. Martin’s Griffin, $13.95, paper)
3. City of Thieves: A Novel by David Benioff. (Viking Adult, $24.95)
4. All Other Nights by Dara Horn. (W.W. Norton, $24.95)
5. The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. (Harper, $29.99)
1. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman. (W.W. Norton, $14.95, paper)
2. Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way by Ruth Reichl. (Penguin, $19.95)
3. Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26)
4. A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy byThomas Buergenthal. (Little, Brown, $24.99)
5. The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets for Reigniting Desire and Restoring Passion for Life by Shmuley Boteach. (HarperOne, $25.99)
Courtesy of www.MyJewishBooks.com.