Big publishing houses have a lot going for them. They’ve got money and media access and the power to bring a book to the forefront of a very noisy culture, if only for a moment. And, like the small presses, they have some outstanding people working for them—publishers, editors, and publicists trying their damnedest to make something like art. What they don’t have very often is a coherent and cohesive vision, even for their individual imprints, and I hope it’s not too unkind to say that they don’t often have very interesting books. Instead, they seem to expend a lot of their energy—and money—in getting excited about the unexciting.
All of this is why I was so delighted to see Harper Perennial come out with Assaf Gavron’s Almost Dead. Harper Perennial is one of the best corners of that house, and a translation isn’t unheard of there, but a political satire that is artfully and ingeniously constructed is a hugely welcome surprise. Translated by the author with James Lever, Almost Dead is everything I always wanted and never expected from a big publisher.
Set in present-day Israel, these are intertwined stories of Croc—a secular, ambivalent Israeli—and Fahmi—a comatose and conflicted Palestinian suicide bomber. Around them, there’s a society in turmoil, a morass of Western-influenced post-industrial business people overlaying a subjugated population seething with enmity and regret.
The book opens with a bang as Croc’s usual bus to work explodes a few blocks after his stop. Before and for a short time after that near-miss, Croc’s life is dominated by his workplace and merely complicated by his girlfriend, Duchi. Life in an embattled and foreign country rendered familiar to most English-language readers through the wondrous universality of fuck:
My first thought was: fuck, how will I get to work from now on? Those fuckers hit every possible means of transportation. Am I going to have to take cabs now? Buy another car? Too expensive . . .
But when that first bombing is followed by a rifle attack that kills the hitchhiker in his car, and he survives a café bombing soon after, Croc becomes a minor celebrity and the target of one last, very personal, attack. This is satire and this is life; separating the two in any society is difficult, but separating them in a tragically hysterical culture in the persistent throes of PTSD is nearly impossible. Croc’s appearances on Israeli television are nightmarishly comic and serve only to alienate him further from his experiences.
But now I was also. . . CrocAttack! Magnet of attention, symbol of resistance, vessel for other people’s ideas. New forces were taking control of my life. . . every day I was approached by people I’d never talked to who knew what I needed, or who needed to know what I thought. . . It didn’t matter to them that, in most cases, I had no opinion.
If trauma can be drawn-out and painfully constant, Fahmi suffers more. Dispossessed of their homes, but not their heritage, Fahmi and his brother Bilahl are mired in the stories of their grandfather’s heroic struggle against the Israelis of two generations ago. Estranged from their families by their politics, the two brothers pursue their own violent agenda that leads them closer and closer to the events in Croc’s half of this book.
But what isn’t in Fahmi’s memory of the past is his tortured present; he spends this novel in a hospital bed, unresponsive but painfully aware, comatose and confused and lost in fractured memory:
“Good movement of the eyes . . . Dr. Hartom will be happy to hear . . .”
My brain must be stuck.
“And now it’s time for your wash . . . “
A never ending dream, and always the same.
Through alternating chapters of Croc’s mounting anxiety and Fahmi’s fever dreams and memories, the reader gains access to the strange duality of life in a country that lies at the margins of another state, a place where everything has two names and two histories. In a sense, this is as much a book of class and race as, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the geography is almost incidental to that story. Almost.
Instead, we have a wonderfully vivid book that builds something beautiful on the strange trajectories that bring two lives into such mortal proximity. And at the same time, we have a book that is very much of its time and of its place, a book without easy answers or any clear idea of morality. Gavron’s empathy, voice, and outstanding construction are appealing, and this book is really an exciting contribution to the literature and to the Levantine conversation.