3 April 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Stalin is Dead by Rachel Shihor has been repeatedly described as kafkaesque, which strikes a chord in many individuals, causing them to run to the bookstore in the middle of the night to be consumed by surreal situations that no one really experiences in their day-to-day life. After reading Stalin is Dead, I was troubled by this descriptor. Yes, Stalin is Dead contains numerous surreal situations, but they are not surreal within the familiar systems, such as a governmental system, of Kafka’s works. Stalin is Dead is more along the lines of the surreal absurdities of Clarice Lispector. I only mention this because while there is overlap between those who love Lispector and those who love Kafka, these individuals will be equally bothered and distracted from the text of Stalin is Dead due to the preconditions invoked by the kafkaesque descriptor.

Coming to this conclusion, it was not so surprising to realize that the subtitle—“Stories and aphorisms on animals, poets, and other earthly creatures“—is a better means of setting the context in which Stalin is Dead was likely intended to be consumed. The stories and aphorisms can be organized by daily observations in life, smug views of payback, and shock flash fiction—not the familiar backdrops of Kafka.

To add to the disorienting nature of the work, Rachel Shihor has placed Hebrew characters throughout the work to intentionally distract from the text. In these vignettes, she forms pictures and depicts word play with Hebrew characters that is both delightful and baffling at the same time. In some instances the characters are overlapped to the point of being illegible, they are also arranged to mimic the subject of a piece within the work, and they are also used to describe various word and character play only possible with Hebrew characters. However, these playful tricks would not be understood without the “Notes of Typograms” at the end of the text.

As you probably guessed, there were portions of this work that I did not understand and I will likely die trying to understand. Isn’t that what most authors want from a reader? An unabashed and perverse desire to attempt to understand their work? An example of this dichotomy between the delightfully thought-provoking and the frustratingly confusing can be seen in the two following excerpts from the work:

“I Left a Bad Impression”

I left a bad impression, definitely a bad impression, on the patrons of the Munich Opera House when they were listening to Judith Triumphant. And I didn’t even have to make an effort. The severed head was enough.

“Spiders”

When I looked the spider in the face I realized that despite his bone-chilling cruelty and despite him dedicating his life to capturing smaller helpless animals, his traps provoke wonder in the eyes of all who behold them.

I looked in his face again and saw a tiny moustache.

From reading the Conversational Reading interview (http://conversationalreading.com/the-rachel-shihor-interview/[conversationalreading.com]) with Rachel Shihor, I know that she sees animals as a reflection of society, but I am left scratching my head about the tiny “moustache” faces. A google search of “spider faces” was wholly unhelpful.

In closing, the genius of Rachel Shihor is fully realized in what was understandable and will be realized in the years to come in what I am still trying to grasp. The ability to induce epiphanies through revisits to a work is what literature is about. The only other author whom I am aware of who is greatly loved for her repeated deliberate inducement of confusion during an entire lifetime is Lispector herself.

23 October 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of the always spectacular Asymptote includes Good Girl, a short story by Gail Hareven.

Hareven is an Israeli author who is most well-known for The Confessions of Noa Weber, an absolutely brilliant book that won the Best Translated Book Award in 2009. It was translated by the also brilliant Dalya Bilu and is available from Melville House.

Next year, Open Letter is going to be bringing out her follow-up, Lies, First Person, a really dark, fucked-up book about a woman who decides to take revenge on her uncle for crimes he committed against her sister when they were growing up. It’s really interesting and very readable, and I’ll be writing more about this in the not too distant future.

But for now, check out the new story, an excerpt of which is below:

Today is the first day of September and for a lot of people this means the beginning of a new school year. I want to experience a new beginning too, so I’ve decided to buy this notebook in which, from now on, I’ll write about everything that happens to me along with my thoughts about it. One day, when I open and read it, I’ll be able to remember how things really were—and I’m sure this will be meaningful. And, until then, I’ll have this diary, and it will be my best friend on lonely days.

So—hello, diary! My name is May Nathanson, which is short for Maya Nathanson. Daddy thinks “May” sounds better. In October I’ll be seventeen, and here’s the surprising part…I don’t go to high school anymore.

In order to explain to you, my new friend, how I grew up so quickly, and why it is that a girl like me doesn’t go to school, I need to go back a few months, to what happened in June. So be patient. (I’m sure you don’t lack patience.)

It all started when crazy Linda locked herself in the bedroom. In case you don’t know (how would you know if I haven’t told you yet?), Linda’s my mom, and please don’t think badly of me for calling her crazy. I’m not the only one who thinks so.

That evening some guests were supposed to come over: two important professors from Germany who came especially to see Daddy’s ward at the hospital, and a couple of doctor friends of his, and all of their wives, too. My dad likes to entertain, and he’s the most charming host in the world. (Okay, okay, maybe not the most charming, but pretty close to it.) If Linda wasn’t the way she is, I’m sure we’d have had guests much more often.

So this is what happened: Ofir and I were sitting upstairs in my room getting ready for the next day’s matriculation exams in government—separation of authority into legislative and judicial branches, stuff like that. At our school we can take two matriculation exams as early as eleventh grade—in language and in government—and we did language a little after Passover. (I don’t mean to brag, but I know I’ll get at least a B+.) Anyway, Ofir and I are sitting and cramming, and suddenly we hear a big metal boom from the kitchen downstairs, and then Linda’s footsteps as she runs up the stairs, and the bedroom door being slammed shut. Ofir looks at me, obviously embarrassed, asking me whether I want to go and see what’s going on, but scenes like this are pretty common with Linda, and I had no intention of encouraging her and her silliness. And guess what? Two minutes later, just as I expected, she started playing one of her stupid records—Leonard Cohen—melancholy trash that always depresses me.

Okay: So when Ofir saw that I wasn’t going to leave the room, we went back to studying. And he didn’t ask anything because he saw that I didn’t want to talk about it, and also because we’re friends and he knows a thing or two about my family. Anyway, what’s going on with Linda is not exactly a secret.

24 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Dan Vitale on Amos Oz’s Between Friends, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and which incidentally comes out today.

Dan is a contributing reviewer of ours who is making his first appearance in a while on Three Percent—and with a piece on an author I understand to be one of his favorites. Dan also wrote for us about Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life.

Here’s an excerpt from Dan’s review:

hroughout his career—in fact from his very first book, Where the Jackals Howl (1965)—the renowned Israeli writer Amos Oz has set much of his fiction on the kibbutz, collective communities he portrays as bastions of social cohesion and stultifying conformity in equal measure. In his latest book, which like Where the Jackals Howl is a collection of eight short stories, the scales feel tipped toward the latter: to judge from Between Friends, if you set out to create a society plagued by gossip and spite, you could hardly do better than to establish a kibbutz.

Most of the protagonists of these linked stories about the fictitious, roughly 1950s-era Kibbutz Yekhat are in one way or another victims of peer pressure or ideological rigidity: Zvi and Luna, quiet, middle-aged platonic friends, are the subject of leering talk in the dining hall; Moshe, 16, a kind of foster member of the kibbutz, is treated harshly for wanting to visit his father, who is hospitalized off site; Martin, a shoemaker with emphysema, is pressured by the kibbutz leadership to quit his job because of his poor health.

For the rest of the review, go here.

24 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Throughout his career—in fact from his very first book, Where the Jackals Howl (1965)—the renowned Israeli writer Amos Oz has set much of his fiction on the kibbutz, collective communities he portrays as bastions of social cohesion and stultifying conformity in equal measure. In his latest book, which like Where the Jackals Howl is a collection of eight short stories, the scales feel tipped toward the latter: to judge from Between Friends, if you set out to create a society plagued by gossip and spite, you could hardly do better than to establish a kibbutz.

Most of the protagonists of these linked stories about the fictitious, roughly 1950s-era Kibbutz Yekhat are in one way or another victims of peer pressure or ideological rigidity: Zvi and Luna, quiet, middle-aged platonic friends, are the subject of leering talk in the dining hall; Moshe, 16, a kind of foster member of the kibbutz, is treated harshly for wanting to visit his father, who is hospitalized off site; Martin, a shoemaker with emphysema, is pressured by the kibbutz leadership to quit his job because of his poor health. Nina, another character plagued by rumors (she has recently left her husband), explains the community’s intolerance this way:

In ten or twenty years. . . . the kibbutz will be a much more relaxed place. Now, all the springs are tightly coiled and the entire machine is still shaking from the strain. The old-timers are actually religious people who left their old religion for a new one that’s just as full of sins and transgressions, prohibitions and strict rules. They haven’t stopped being true believers; they’ve simply exchanged one belief system for another. Marx is their Talmud. The general meeting is the synagogue and David Dagan is their rabbi.

Dagan, about 50, a history teacher at the kibbutz school and one of the community’s founders, figures as a villain of sorts throughout the book, most pointedly in the title story. The fiercest of the Marxists, he is also self-serving and a notorious womanizer. In “Between Friends” he is living with a former student, 17-year-old Edna, daughter of one of his oldest acquaintances. He acts not the slightest bit concerned about how this situation is affecting his old “friend.”

As the irony of that word suggests, Oz appears to be arguing that, whatever communal spirit a kibbutz fosters, it is usually unlikely ever to privilege emotional connections over societal ones. One character reflects: “[M]ost people seem to need more warmth and affection than others are capable of giving, and none of the kibbutz committees will ever be able to cover that deficit between supply and demand.”

Within these strictures, Oz’s characters live “lives of quiet desperation” (to borrow Thoreau’s memorable formulation). The stories frequently end on notes of irresolution, paralysis, or failure, with protagonists hesitating on the verge of accepting, without further complaint, their own inability to improve their circumstances. Nowhere is this truer than in “At Night,” the most understated and emotionally powerful of the stories, in which Yoav, the kibbutz secretary, nurses an inexpressible passion for Nina. Alone before dawn and on guard duty, Yoav contemplates a bleak future, “feeling that something was almost becoming clear to him, but what that something was, he didn’t know.”

Accordingly, the book’s style, like that of another of Oz’s linked collections, Scenes from Village Life (2011), is extremely spare, at times approaching the simplicity and clarity of Chekhov. At other times, this spareness can seem more an oversight than a deliberate effect, undercutting a story’s strength. But these weaker moments are rare.
The story that most richly depicts the conflict between kibbutz life and individual freedom is “Deir Ajloun.” Yotam and his widowed mother, Henia, are awaiting a vote by the kibbutz leadership on Yotam’s wish to travel to Italy, ostensibly to start college early, although Yotam himself wants mainly to escape the suffocation he feels in the kibbutz. Early in the story, after a run-in over the upcoming vote with a jealous coworker in the kibbutz kitchen, Henia thinks:

People don’t love each other anymore. At first, when the kibbutz was founded, we were all a family. True, even then there were rifts, but we were close. Every evening we’d get together and sing rousing songs and nostalgic ballads till the small hours. Afterward, we went to sleep in tents, and if anyone talked in their sleep, we all heard them. These days, everyone lives in a separate apartment and we’re at each other’s throats. On the kibbutz today, if you’re standing on your feet, everyone is just waiting for you to fall, and if you fall . . . they all rush to help you up.

There is something both chilling and heartening about that final clause, suggesting as it does both hypocrisy and a modicum of compassion. Oz doesn’t hint at whether he intends it as blame or praise; of course, it’s both.

3 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sarah Young, aka Sarah Two, on Sayed Kashua’s Second Person Singular, which is translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg and is available from Grove Press.

This is Sarah Two’s first review for threepercent. Her introduction can be found here. Later this week, both Sarahs (Sarah Two and Quantum Sarah) will be featured in a review that they co-wrote.

Here is some of Sarah Two’s first independent review:

Like the two protagonists of his most recent novel, Second Person Singular (translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg), Sayed Kashua is a Jerusalem-educated Arab Israeli. He is a columnist for Haaretz, a liberal newspaper, and the creator of the hit sitcom, Arab Labor. Kashua’s work is often controversial, especially among the Palestinian population of Israel, both for his humorous use of cultural stereotypes and presentations of Muslims engaging in drinking and pre-marital sex. His writing for Arab Labor was described by The New York Times as irreverent toward Jewish and Arab Israelis alike – a style that is subtly present in Second Person Singular.

Contrary to what the title might lead us to expect, half of the book is written in the third person and half is written in the first person singular, but none of it is written in the second person singular. The third person thread chronicles the story of a nameless man identified only as “the lawyer”; the other thread is told from the perspective of a social worker whose name is eventually revealed, but withheld for much of the novel. The lawyer’s drama hinges on his discovery of a note in his wife’s handwriting and the consequent paranoia that she might be cheating on him, while the social worker’s conflict centers on his experience as a caretaker for a paralyzed, vegetative Jewish young man. The two plot lines, if not exactly intertwined, are related, yet the stronger connection between the narratives lies in the two characters’ painstaking efforts to blend in with their Jewish colleagues.

Click here to read the entire review.

3 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Like the two protagonists of his most recent novel, Second Person Singular (translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg), Sayed Kashua is a Jerusalem-educated Arab Israeli. He is a columnist for Haaretz, a liberal newspaper, and the creator of the hit sitcom, Arab Labor. Kashua’s work is often controversial, especially among the Palestinian population of Israel, both for his humorous use of cultural stereotypes and presentations of Muslims engaging in drinking and pre-marital sex. His writing for Arab Labor was described by The New York Times as irreverent toward Jewish and Arab Israelis alike – a style that is subtly present in Second Person Singular.

Contrary to what the title might lead us to expect, half of the book is written in the third person and half is written in the first person singular, but none of it is written in the second person singular. The third person thread chronicles the story of a nameless man identified only as “the lawyer”; the other thread is told from the perspective of a social worker whose name is eventually revealed, but withheld for much of the novel. The lawyer’s drama hinges on his discovery of a note in his wife’s handwriting and the consequent paranoia that she might be cheating on him, while the social worker’s conflict centers on his experience as a caretaker for a paralyzed, vegetative Jewish young man. The two plot lines, if not exactly intertwined, are related, yet the stronger connection between the narratives lies in the two characters’ painstaking efforts to blend in with their Jewish colleagues.

In the passages following the lawyer, the narrator strikes an almost satirical tone. The lawyer’s every action seems calculated to raise his esteem in the eyes of his family, peers, and even perfect strangers. Whenever a friendly rival upgrades his sports car, the lawyer must buy a new one that is even better; he keeps an office in an expensive Jewish neighborhood despite the fact that all his clients are Arab Israelis; when he goes to buy a book that embarrasses him, he asks the cashier to giftwrap it. Once a month he and his wife take part in a couples’ night, complete with overpriced sushi and post-dinner discussions of predetermined topics.

Yet just when you think the book could be a mockery of the lawyer for trying too hard to conform to Western culture, it careens off in another direction. When the lawyer irrationally concludes that his wife is unfaithful, he assumes a more convenient ideology to suit his rage:

Experience had taught him that he was a conservative. Yes, a conservative, and from now on he would not be apologetic about it. What an idiot an idiot he had been when he spoke out, time and again, against the treatment of women in the Arab World, saying that it was widespread misogyny that held these societies back.

His outbursts, while disturbing, seem less like genuine expressions of feeling and more like attempts to react the way that he thinks people in his situation should react. I appreciated the dark comedy in this half-instinctive/half-intellectual neurosis, particularly in small moments, such as the time the lawyer googles “why women cheat.”

There is less comedy present in the sections detailing the life of the social worker, in part because his first person narration provides fewer opportunities for satire. Unlike the lawyer, he does everything he can to fade away from notice, positive or negative. His ethnically ambiguous name and physical appearance, as well as his fluency in both Arabic and Hebrew, allow him to slip between cultures and witness more of the ugly prejudices present in Israeli society. Van drivers rant to him about Zionist “collaborators”; Jewish university students joke to him about the “token Arabs” in their programs; modern Muslim Jerusalemites scorn conventional women that wear hijabs. It is no wonder that he feels embarrassed wherever he goes. In a crowded Jewish nightclub he expounds:

I want to be like them. Free, loose, full of dreams, able to think about love. . . the who felt no need to apologize for their existence, no need to hide their identity. Like them… To feel like I belong, without feeling guilty or disloyal. And what exactly was I being disloyal to?

The last question of the passage comes across both as a genuine inquiry and an attempt by the narrator to justify his behavior. This ambivalence runs through the entire novel as the two men take great measures to feel comfortable within Jewish circles of the Jerusalem community, yet feel uncomfortable about having taken those measures. The implication seems to be that they lose something un-nameable – maybe even unrecognizable – in the process of assimilation. Still, it is unclear whether or not this ineffable sacrifice is worth grieving.

26 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next two weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz translated by Nicholas de Lange

Language: Hebrew

Country: Israel 

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Why This Book Should Win: Haunting stories told with precision prose.

Today’s post is by Suzanne Zweizig, a poet/editor/translator living in Washington D.C.

Things get weird quickly in Amos Oz’s collection of linked stories, Scenes from Village Life. From the first story, Oz turns the “creepy” knob so gradually yet inevitably upward from beginning to end that what starts off as a fairly pleasant setting (the Israel version of “Tuscany!,” one character gushes) with seemingly innocuous characters ends up in a place so taboo that it disquiets and dissettles for the rest of the collection. One cannot help but turn the pages of subsequent stories under a combined sense of fascination and doom, not knowing quite where one will end up in such an author’s hands. I would not be a spoiler by saying that it usually s in a psychologically very uncomfortable space.

The thing is, many of these characters, like us, didn’t mean to go where they end up. Arieh Zelnik, in the first story, meant to tell the stranger on his porch that his “visit was now over.” Instead he tells him to wait outside and then makes no objection as the stranger follows him inside. Same with Yossi Sasson, in “Lost,” who visits the house of a famous, but now-deceased, author in the village, hoping to persuade his widow to sell the house. When the author’s young daughter answers the door and says that her mother is not home, Yossi makes up his mind “to thank her, take my leave, and come back another day.” Instead, “his feet followed her into the house of their own accord.” We don’t know exactly where Yossi’s feet are going to take him, but having already accompanied several of Oz’s characters as they are pushed (pulled?) ahead by some strange compulsion, we know, as much as any horror film audience does, to squirm and shout at Yossi to turn back. Indeed, he should have.

But there is no going backwards in these stories. There is only going ahead, towards the compulsion, driven on by some desire to know. To know what? Oz is enough of a story-teller, and a wise enough soul, not to let us off the hook of the question. This book is full of lost people, searching, and futile explorations: an aunt for her nephew who never arrives on the bus; the town mayor for his wife who disappears one Sabbath eve leaving only a cryptic note “Don’t worry about me”; the high school English teacher for the source of the strange nocturnal digging sound beneath her house. These searches take place with flashlight in hand, as night has arrived or is falling, or in locked or underground spaces that are usually “off limits” in a normal, well-lit world.

As universal and elemental as these psychological tales are, however, one cannot read this book without seeing it, at least to some degree, in the context of the “situation,” a comparison that Oz, with his consummate skill and subtlety, both suggests and does not belabor. Set in a small fictional town of Tel Ilan (a la Sherman Anderson’s Winnesborg, Ohio) in the north of Israel, these stories play out in a backdrop that is peppered with references to Israel’s history. Its characters wander incessantly along the town’s “Founder Street,” and “Memorial Garden” and the village’s famous deceased author wrote voluminous novels about the Holocaust that several characters, including his daughter, confess (almost heretically) to neither liking nor reading.

The book is rife with intergenerational tension, and aged parents are neither wholly beloved nor revered. In “Digging,” the longest story of the collection, and, dare I say its set piece (when I heard Oz read from this collection last spring, he chose this story), Oz creates a strange domestic triangle between a middle-age widow, her a cantankerous, almost-senile elderly father—a former Minister in the Knesset who harrumphs around, despising everyone, predicting gloom, lashing out alternately at Mickey the vet whom he fears has designs on his daughter and his former colleagues who betrayed his party’s ideals—and an Arab student who lives in one of the outbuildings doing chores in exchange for his board and taking notes for a comparative study “about you” (Israelis) and “about us” (Arabs). “Our unhappiness is partly our fault and partly your fault. But your unhappiness comes from your soul,” the student says, when pressed by the father to summarize the findings of his research.

There is much to ponder in these stories and Oz, while providing much suggestive layering, never makes a false step into allegory or heavy symbolism. Throughout the collection, his prose is spot-on: masterful, able to create a vivid character with a few spare lines and translated beautifully by his long-time translator Nicholas de Lange. The stories are slim, spare, taking you to places you never meant to go, but won’t be able to stop thinking about.

14 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Dan Vitale on Aharon Appelfeld’s Until the Dawn’s Light, which is translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green, and available from Schocken Books.

Dan is one of our contributing reviewers, and has written a ton of great pieces for us. Most recently, he wrote about Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life. You can read all of his past reviews by clicking here.

And here’s the opening of his Appelfeld piece:

The violence in the fiction of Aharon Appelfeld—often anti-Semitic, frequently represented by the Holocaust itself—usually occurs after, or prior to, his novels’ main action. Thus the novels typically occupy one of two psychic spaces: the period of rising tension in the months or years before Hitler’s advent and the Final Solution, or the lawless aftermath of World War II, in which concentration-camp survivors wander devastated landscapes in search of a new life. Rarely, then, do the events presented in an Appelfeld novel contain as much raw brutality as we encounter in Until the Dawn’s Light, and rarely is it presented in as private a context: the violence inflicted upon a Jewish wife by her gentile husband.

When we first meet Blanca Guttmann in about 1912, she is twenty-three and fleeing across Austria by train with her four-year-old son Otto. They stop and rent a small house by a river, where Blanca begins writing an account of her life for Otto to read when he is old enough. Most of Until the Dawn’s Light is taken up with Appelfeld’s (not always chronological) summary of what Blanca writes, beginning with her upbringing as the cherished daughter of a moderately successful if unhappy businessman and his sickly wife. Blanca is talented at mathematics and has an opportunity to study in Vienna on a scholarship once she finishes high school. But, seemingly on a whim, she abandons this path in favor of a blossoming friendship with a dull-witted classmate, Adolf, who is threatened with expulsion by the very same teachers who dote on Blanca. Adolf, a gentile, blames the teachers’ animosity on their Jewishness, an opinion that meek Blanca, in sympathy with Adolf’s academic struggles, does little to counter, considering that she is Jewish herself. After high school, she marries Adolf, converts to Christianity, and her life of torment begins.

Click here to read the full piece.

14 November 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The violence in the fiction of Aharon Appelfeld—often anti-Semitic, frequently represented by the Holocaust itself—usually occurs after, or prior to, his novels’ main action. Thus the novels typically occupy one of two psychic spaces: the period of rising tension in the months or years before Hitler’s advent and the Final Solution, or the lawless aftermath of World War II, in which concentration-camp survivors wander devastated landscapes in search of a new life. Rarely, then, do the events presented in an Appelfeld novel contain as much raw brutality as we encounter in Until the Dawn’s Light, and rarely is it presented in as private a context: the violence inflicted upon a Jewish wife by her gentile husband.

When we first meet Blanca Guttmann in about 1912, she is twenty-three and fleeing across Austria by train with her four-year-old son Otto. They stop and rent a small house by a river, where Blanca begins writing an account of her life for Otto to read when he is old enough. Most of Until the Dawn’s Light is taken up with Appelfeld’s (not always chronological) summary of what Blanca writes, beginning with her upbringing as the cherished daughter of a moderately successful if unhappy businessman and his sickly wife. Blanca is talented at mathematics and has an opportunity to study in Vienna on a scholarship once she finishes high school. But, seemingly on a whim, she abandons this path in favor of a blossoming friendship with a dull-witted classmate, Adolf, who is threatened with expulsion by the very same teachers who dote on Blanca. Adolf, a gentile, blames the teachers’ animosity on their Jewishness, an opinion that meek Blanca, in sympathy with Adolf’s academic struggles, does little to counter, considering that she is Jewish herself. After high school, she marries Adolf, converts to Christianity, and her life of torment begins.

Appelfeld presents Adolf’s episodes of domestic abuse in a manner that is quietly matter-of-fact yet also unrelenting. Here, for example, is how Adolf treats Blanca during the mourning period following the death of her mother, after Blanca has come back home one evening from a day spent sitting with her bereaved father:

Adolf would return late at night and whip her with his belt. Now he didn’t hit her in anger, but with the intention of hurting her. “We have to uproot all your weaknesses from you and all the bad qualities you inherited from your parents. A woman has to be a woman and not a weakling.” . . .

She would cry, and her weeping drove him crazy. He would throw a tantrum and curse her and her ancestors, who didn’t know how to live right, bound up with money and flawed in character.

On Sundays his brothers and friends would fill the house, guzzle and gobble and finally sing and dance in the yard until late at night. The next day she would get up early to make Adolf his morning coffee. After he left the house dizziness would assail her, and she would sink to the floor, ravaged.

When Otto is born and Adolf decides (to Blanca’s secret satisfaction) that Blanca now needs to work outside the home to help support the family, she takes a job at an old age home where, just as matter-of-factly as Adolf abuses her, she discreetly begins to steal and resell the residents’ valuables, telling herself that she is doing so in order to save up money to live on when she eventually works up the courage to take Otto away from Adolf. Her vague plan is to flee east, to the Carpathian Mountains where her ancestors, observant Jews, were born, and for whose simple, loving piety she longs while reading the romantic Hasidic tales of Martin Buber.

Because we feel deeply for Blanca—and continue to do so even after she commits a gruesome act of violence herself and, later, turns to still other forms of crime to prevent herself from being captured by the authorities—a disturbing moral quandary arises. Appelfeld seems to acknowledge ruefully that violence such as Adolf’s only begets more violence (the psychological damage done to Blanca as well as the violence she herself is driven to commit). But he also seems to believe that Blanca’s crimes are defensible because they are committed in reaction to these prior acts of violence. Further, by framing this scenario explicitly in an anti-Semitic context, Appelfeld risks suggesting that crimes committed in defense of the survival of Jewish culture are justified for that additional reason as well.

That Appelfeld never makes clear whether he in fact believes this adds depth and resonance to the dilemmas he depicts and is a tribute to his skill as a novelist. The questions he raises haunt the reader even though both Adolf’s and Blanca’s crimes are eventually punished in one way or another, in purely worldly terms if not moral or theological ones. For this reason, the darker undercurrents of Blanca’s already sad story linger in the mind no less vividly than the relentlessly inhumane acts Appelfeld describes.

24 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our “Book Reviews” section is a piece by Dan Vitale on Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life, which is translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange and just came out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Dan Vitale is one of our contributing reviewers, and as such, has written a number of great reviews for us.

Amos Oz has a number of books available in English translation, including Rhyming Life & Death, which came out just a couple years ago. He’s won tons of prizes, including the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Israel Prize, the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature, and the Goethe Prize, among others. He’s very involved in politics, and for all these reasons, is an annual favorite for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Here’s the opening of Dan’s review:

Seven of the eight pieces—one hesitates to call them stories—in Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life take place in the fictional Israeli village of Tel Ilan. More than a century old, the village began by supporting farms, orchards, and vineyards but has now become something of an upscale tourist attraction:

“Many of the inhabitants still farmed, with the help of foreign laborers who lived in huts in the farmyards. But some had leased out their land and made a living by letting rooms, by running art galleries or fashion boutiques or by working outside the village. Two gourmet restaurants had opened in the middle of the village, and there was also the winery and a shop selling tropical fish. One local entrepreneur had started manufacturing reproduction antique furniture. On weekends, of course, the village filled with visitors who came to eat or to hunt for a bargain. But every Friday afternoon its streets emptied as the residents rested behind closed shutters.”

The book presents glimpses into the small and insignificant lives being led behind those shutters. In keeping with the Chekhovian echo of the book’s title, Oz tends to focus on the mundane passions that occasionally flare up and, more often, flicker out in the hearts of the village residents.

Click here to read the entire piece.

24 October 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Seven of the eight pieces—one hesitates to call them stories—in Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life take place in the fictional Israeli village of Tel Ilan. More than a century old, the village began by supporting farms, orchards, and vineyards but has now become something of an upscale tourist attraction:

“Many of the inhabitants still farmed, with the help of foreign laborers who lived in huts in the farmyards. But some had leased out their land and made a living by letting rooms, by running art galleries or fashion boutiques or by working outside the village. Two gourmet restaurants had opened in the middle of the village, and there was also the winery and a shop selling tropical fish. One local entrepreneur had started manufacturing reproduction antique furniture. On weekends, of course, the village filled with visitors who came to eat or to hunt for a bargain. But every Friday afternoon its streets emptied as the residents rested behind closed shutters.”

The book presents glimpses into the small and insignificant lives being led behind those shutters. In keeping with the Chekhovian echo of the book’s title, Oz tends to focus on the mundane passions that occasionally flare up and, more often, flicker out in the hearts of the village residents. There is, for example, Gili Steiner, a childless doctor who pines for a visit from her nephew; or Pesach Kedem, a bitter, aged former Knesset member who lives with his widowed daughter and their Arab student boarder, and who imagines he hears digging under the house at night. There is Yossi Sasson, the real estate agent who plans to buy, raze, and replace with a pricy villa the ramshackle house of a dead Holocaust novelist, but who falls for the temptations of the novelist’s granddaughter; and teenaged Kobi Ezra, son of the village grocer, who conceives what he believes to be an unrequited love for Ada Dvash, the 30-year-old divorcée who runs both the village’s often empty post office and its small lending library.

Oz begins each piece straightforwardly, but rather than—as in the typical short story—concluding it with the satisfying sense of a mystery solved or a musical composition that ends on just the right note, he more often introduces a sudden twist that jolts the piece in an unexpected direction and suggests that the deepest mysteries are those that exist within human beings, ones that can rarely if ever be truly understood, let alone resolved.

Take “Heirs,” the book’s opening piece, in which Arieh Zelnik is interrupted at home by Wolff Maftsir, a lawyer who claims an obscure kinship with the Zelnik family and offers, conspiratorially, to assist Arieh in getting his elderly mother to relinquish ownership of the house Arieh shares with her. Although repeatedly rebuffed by Arieh, Maftsir nevertheless gains access to the bedroom where the mother is napping, and the piece ends with this curious bit of business:

[Maftsir] bent over and kissed her twice, a long kiss on either cheek, and then kissed her again on the forehead. The old lady opened her cloudy eyes, drew a skeletal hand from under the blanket and stroked Wolff Maftsir’s head, murmuring something or other and pulling his head toward her with both hands. In response, he bent closer, took off his shoes, kissed her toothless mouth and lay down at her side, pulling at the blanket to cover them both. . . .

Arieh Zelnik hesitated for a moment or two, and looked out of the open window at a tumbledown farm shed and a dusty cypress tree up which an orange bougainvillea climbed with flaming fingers. Walking around the double bed, he closed the shutters and the window and drew the curtains, and as he did so he unbuttoned his shirt, then undid his belt, removed his shoes, undressed and got into bed next to his old mother.

This could be taken as a hallucinatory portrayal of the irresistible predatoriness of lawyers, but instead it seems more pleasurable to take it at face value in all its bizarrerie. Not every piece in Scenes from Village Life is quite this strange, but the general rule still holds: Oz convinces us to accept his characters just as they are, not asking us to fathom their depths but simply to marvel at their complexity. Even when the eighth and final piece wrenches us suddenly from Tel Ilan into a scene set in a primitive, possibly post-apocalyptic society—a shift that arguably makes the entire book replicate the quirky structure of most of the individual pieces within it—Oz’s respect for human mystery stays with us and richly rewards our attention.

7 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Daniela Hurezanu about Alex Epstein’s Lunar Savings Time, which is translated from the Hebrew by Becka Mara McKay and available from Clockroot Books.

Daniela Hurezanu has reviewed for us several times in the past, and here’s her official bio, courtesy of Words Without Borders:

Daniela Hurezanu has a Ph.D. in Romance languages and literatures and taught French for ten years at several universities in the United States. She has authored a book of literary criticism and scholarly articles in magazines such as The Romanic Review, Post-Scriptum.ORG, Orbis Litterarum, and Phréatique. She has published translations in Metamorphoses, Manoa, Field, Exquisite Corpse, New Orleans Review, and Circumference, and her original work has appeared or is forthcoming in LittéRéalité, Pacific Review and Prairie Schooner. In 2004 she received a Francophone award for short stories.

Even if we weren’t interested in Alex Epstein’s work (we are!), we’d review this based solely on our respect and admiration for Clockroot Books (stellar press) and Becka McKay (one of the friendliest and funniest and most talented of all contemporary translators). Here’s the opening of Daniela’s review:

Becka Mara McKay is slowly becoming one of our most reliable translators from the Hebrew. Her most recent translation, Lunar Savings Time (2011) comes as a counterpart to Blue Has no South (2010), both by Alex Epstein, and available from Clockroot Books. The two books complement each other not only physically, but also because they could be part of the same book. Published as “stories,” they would be probably categorized as prose poem or flash fiction collections by most American readers and writers.

The fact that, as in his previous book, the pieces in Epstein’s Lunar Savings Time are framed as “stories” is not unimportant because the framing forces the reader to adopt a certain position by focusing on the narrative thread. Indeed, with very few exceptions, all the pieces in this collection, no matter how short, “tell a story.” Even the exceptions could be called, technically speaking, “stories,” because there is something happening in them: “The last man in the world wrote the last haiku in the world;” or: “The ghost was still breastfeeding.”

There are two major influences that are obvious in this collection: Borges and Kafka. The references to Borges are indirect, and can be detected in a structure many of the pieces have, in which a story and its main protagonist become a tangent to another story with another protagonist, so that each story appears as the fragment of another, bigger story. On the other hand, Kafka’s name appears many times, as well as those of other famous real people, such as Heidegger, Stephen Hawking, Yuri Gagarin, Emily Dickinson, or mythological Greek heroes, which are appropriated in made-up contexts.

Click here to read the entire review.

7 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Becka Mara McKay is slowly becoming one of our most reliable translators from the Hebrew. Her most recent translation, Lunar Savings Time (2011) comes as a counterpart to Blue Has no South (2010), both by Alex Epstein, and available from Clockroot Books. The two books complement each other not only physically, but also because they could be part of the same book. Published as “stories,” they would be probably categorized as prose poem or flash fiction collections by most American readers and writers.

The fact that, as in his previous book, the pieces in Epstein’s Lunar Savings Time are framed as “stories” is not unimportant because the framing forces the reader to adopt a certain position by focusing on the narrative thread. Indeed, with very few exceptions, all the pieces in this collection, no matter how short, “tell a story.” Even the exceptions could be called, technically speaking, “stories,” because there is something happening in them: “The last man in the world wrote the last haiku in the world;” or: “The ghost was still breastfeeding.”

There are two major influences that are obvious in this collection: Borges and Kafka. The references to Borges are indirect, and can be detected in a structure many of the pieces have, in which a story and its main protagonist become a tangent to another story with another protagonist, so that each story appears as the fragment of another, bigger story. On the other hand, Kafka’s name appears many times, as well as those of other famous real people, such as Heidegger, Stephen Hawking, Yuri Gagarin, Emily Dickinson, or mythological Greek heroes, which are appropriated in made-up contexts. For instance, the narrator’s grandmother, Rosa, “kissed Yuri Gagarin in 1961 in an elevator in Moscow.” The narrator’s grandparents are a recurrent presence, usually in the company of some famous characters, or else in a well-known historical context (the Holocaust), so one has the feeling of participating in the mythologized remaking of a life story. Like Borges, Epstein reinvents the truth, the real, and even history, by fictionalizing them (which is not to say that his stories don’t include many real facts).

A technique Epstein often uses is the parody of the logic of legends. Thus, “On the Metamorphosis” begins with “Once upon a time there was a tree who [. . .] fell in love with a woman who passed through the forest,” but a few lines into the story, the logic changes. The narrator steps out of the frame, and the fiction turns into meta-fiction, giving us only “one of the versions of this legend.” Then, the story goes back to its previous logic—“the tree returns to the forest of his birth“—only to serve us a hilarious tongue-in-cheek ending—“where he hangs himself.”

One of my favorite stories is “Franz Kafka, the Lost Years. A Draft of an Impossible Novel,” in which Epstein imagines an alternative life for Kafka, which is both very funny and sad—and quite . . . plausible. Kafka marries Dora; they make plans to emigrate to America, but then she becomes pregnant. In 1941 the two of them and their daughter are sent to a concentration camp, where Kafka’s small consolation is “the weather report of one of the camp newspapers, which, every day, accurately predicts most of the expected weather in [. . .] London, Tokyo and New York.” His wife and daughter die, and in 1944 Kafka is sent to Auschwitz. He survives and sails to Palestine, where he Hebraizes his name to Ephraim Kaspi and gets a job at Bank Mizrahi. Years later, he has an encounter with Max Brod, who has kept some of his stories, but Kafka doesn’t care. Says Brod: “You ungrateful bastard. It’s too bad that the Nazis didn’t kill you.” In his last years, Kafka spends his time going to the beach and the cinema, buys a camera and a record player. He travels to Jerusalem, which he finds “more beautiful than a postcard.” Eventually, and predictably, he dies.

21 March 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.

Click here for all past and future posts.

To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen

Language: Hebrew
Country: Israel
Publisher: Knopf
Pages: 576

Why This Book Should Win: David Grossman won the German Peace Prize this past year; this was one of the only translated novels to consistently show up on year-end “best-of” lists.

Today’s entry is from Monica Carter, BTBA panelist who also runs Salonica, a “virtual salon dedicated to promoting international literature.”

A stunning achievement in war literature, David Grossman’s novel captures war and it’s destruction in the here and now better than any other novel of this epoch. It is a novel that does what war can’t: it explains, reflects, and examines the lives who are directly and indirectly swept into its torrents. It presents the reality surviving war without mawkish attempts at emotional manipulation, instead offering the stark reality of attempting to regain a sliver of a former self once the war has done its damage.

Grossman’s work has not received the attention he deserves from American readers, but this is the novel that showcases his skill as a writer, his themes of war and isolation, and the Arab-Israeli conflict and his powerful ability to write novels of meaning and substance. It’s difficult to find a bad review of this novel that is a testament to his appeal despite the controversial subject matter.

To the End of the Land is an intricate epic revolving around the love triangle of Ora, Ilan, and Avram. Alternating between present day and past memories, the reader witnesses Ora’s escape into her memories to avoid the reality of what she considers the inevitable—the death of her son Ofer who just sent her son off to war again. Grossman parallels her psychological journey of futility with her physical journey on the Israel Trail. Ora is a unique, complete voice, rich and multifaceted, that literature needs to hear.

Grossman focuses on Ora and Avram’s—her teenage lover and a POW survivor from the Egyptian war—walk to the Galilee which was the trip she had planned to take with Ofer. Her husband Ilan, who was the best friend of Avram, and her eldest son, Adam, have abandoned her to travel together to South America. She literally drags Avram with her, who is lost in a haze of drugs and depression, because she wants to tell him about Ofer. Avram is Ofer’s father, but Avram let him be raised as Ora and Ilan’s son because he was too emotionally and mentally ruined after brutal treatment at the hands of Egyptian guards. She knows that if she is not home she can avoid ever receiving any bad news from the authorities about Ofer. Grossman expertly shows the excruciating moments of not knowing and waiting to know if her son has died:

During this eternal moment, she, and faraway Ofer, and everything that occurs in the vast space between them, are all deciphered in a flash of knowledge, like a densely woven fabric, so that the very act of her standing by the kitchen table, and the fact that she stupidly continues to peel the potato—her fingers on the knife whiten now—and all her trivial, routine household movements, and all the innocent, ostensibly random fragments of reality around her, become nothing less than vital steps in a mysterious dance, a slow and solemn dance, whose unwitting partners are Ofer, and his friends preparing for battle, and the senior officers scanning the map of future battles, and the rows of tanks she saw on the outskirts of the meeting point, and the dozens of smaller vehicles that moved among the tanks, and the people in the villages and towns over there, the other ones, who would watch through drawn blinds as soldiers and tanks drove down their streets and alleys, and the quick-as-lightening boy who might hit Ofer tomorrow or the day after or perhaps even tonight, with a rock or a bullet or a rocket (strangely, the boy’s movement is the only thing that violates and complicates the slow heaviness of the entire dance), and the notifiers, who might be refreshing their procedures at the Jerusalem army offices right now . . . Everyone, everyone is part of this massive, all-encompassing process, and the people killed in the last terrorist attack are part of it too, unaware of their role: they are the casualties whose death will be avenged by the soldiers off on a new campaign.

Ora had promised him that she would not talk about Ofer to Avram because it was too difficult to him. Afraid that she will lose her memory of Ofer’s life, she begs Avram to listen and learn about who Ofer is. Gradually during the journey, Avram grows stronger and is able to engage in listening to Ora recount her memories of Ofer and brings their relationship to a deeper, more connected level.

This is not a novel that answers questions, or even asks them, its purpose is to expose the loss of war—the lives of those we lose and the pieces of life lost by those who survive. We know nothing good comes of war, but in the end in comes down to managing the pain of memory and trauma so that the war doesn’t continue within us once the fighting has stopped. To the End of the Land should win because the translation is faultless the message has the most to give us in the current war-driven atmosphere that offers no redemption. David Grossman also understand war better than many having lost his one of his sons while in war while finishing this novel. To convey his own grief through literature of the highest quality proves his dedication to life as art and to helping others cope with the tragedy of war.

18 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next four weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven. Translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu. (Israel, Melville House)

It’s hard to write an objective overview when it comes to books like this. I first heard about this via Jessa Crispin’s review for NPR, then coming across Michael Orthofer’s review at Complete Review, where he gave it an “A-.” (Anyone who follows Complete Review knows how rare anything above a B or B+ is . . . ) Completely intrigued but living through the beginnings of my divorce—a divorce that at the time I wasn’t totally in favor of—I picked this up over the summer despite my slight fear that a book about a woman’s obsessive love for a man who left her was maybe not the best thing for my state of mind.

Who knows if it was or wasn’t, but after the first handful of pages I was in love with Noa’s voice. As I mentioned in my review, this is one of those novels in which the voice and telling of the story far outstrips the plot of the actual book. At its most basic, The Confessions of Noa Weber is about a middle-aged writer who married a man out of convenience (to escape her military duty) and continues to love for the rest of her life despite the fact that he leaves her for Russia, for another woman, for a different life.

Noa goes on to become a very successful author of Nira Woolf detective novels, but never stops loving Alek. And this book is her gut-wrenchingly personal account of her obsession and her life as a whole. In our blog & Twitter-obsessed world, this book is perfectly suited for our times. It reads like a too-personal look into someone’s life, but one that is charming, honest, smart, self-critical, sarcastic, and absolutely captivating.

The temptation always exists to be flippant at your own expense in the marketplace of anecdotes and then to go around with your hat and collect the laughter. Everything’s a joke nowadays, everything’s a laugh, it’s the fashion. So that feeling seriously has become utterly and completely pathetic. A kind of social impropriety which only a real blockhead would be guilty of. You won’t usually catch me making this kind of faux pas, because I am a polite person, I have self-respect and I don’t want to cause embarrassment either. And since I’m such a classy gal, everything about me is classy too. In other words, in the framework of the anecdote and the shtick, the best thing about a good shtick is that like a hawker in the marketplace you can dish it out to people like a tasty morsel of yourself.

So I could sell you this wild shtick about how I got turned on by Alek, and how from the thing we had together I got pregnant, and how afterwards I got back into that whole scene again; and it’ll all be terribly flippant and witty, how I’ll laugh at her, and for a few moments perhaps I’ll even feel healed, because I’ll be really capable of laughing at “her,” who by then is already not completely me.

The truth is that emotional seriousness involves not a little stupidity. The stupidity lies in that toad-like inflation itself, as if vis-a-vis all the terribly painful and terribly important and terribly, terribly terrible things happening in the world, Noa Weber jumps up and croaks out loud: Listen, listen, look, look, I too have something terribly painful and terribly important to tell. Something about my tortured soul. Something about my delusions.

Once you start reading this book, it’s almost impossible to put down. Noa Weber is an amazing character—one that you could listen to forever. In fact, I know someone who refuses to finish the last five pages just so that it won’t be over . . .

Gail Hareven won the Sapir Prize for Literature for this novel, and although I have no idea what her other books are like (she’s the author of five other novels and three story collections), I really hope Melville House (or someone) will bring them out in Dalya Bilu’s translations. Even if they’re half as good as Noa Weber, they’d still be totally amazing.

9 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re really not trying to kick Amos Oz while he’s down, but in addition to not winning the Nobel Prize for Literature yesterday (there had been rampant speculation, and he was the odds-on favorite for a while), it sounds like his new novel is as messy as the new Houghton Mifflin Harcourt website1 . . . At least according to our reviewer Dan Vitale whose piece on Rhyming Life & Death is the latest addition to our Review section.

Here’s the opening:

The short novel is a form in which writers typically exercise great control over their material, accepting the abbreviated length as a kind of challenge, working within that limitation to craft a tight, jewel-like story in which all the elements of the piece—plot, tone, imagery—work together to create a unified artistic effect similar to that of a short story. (Think Heart of Darkness, Death in Venice, The Metamorphosis, or The Old Man and the Sea.) This is decidedly not the case with Rhyming Life and Death, Amos Oz’s latest work of fiction to be published in the U.S. in translation.

There is no doubt that Oz, one of Israel’s most prominent writers, is a master. For four decades he has been producing powerful and moving novels such as Elsewhere, Perhaps (1966; translated 1973) and Fima (1993); he is also the author of A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002; translated 2004), an extraordinarily beautiful memoir of his childhood in Jerusalem. But Rhyming Life & Death is quite simply a mess. For such a brief work it is annoyingly loose and undisciplined, and its overall artistic effect borders on incoherence.

Click here for the rest.

1 There are so many cool people I know at HMH that I feel bad always ragging on their web shenanigans. But damn, someone there must have a clue as to how the Internets function. I’ll walk you step-by-step through my most recent experience. For this review, I wanted to include a link to HMH’s page about Rhyming Life & Death. This is something we always do in order to give publishers some attention and provide readers with another source of information. And why not? Every publisher has a website nowadays, right? So I type “Houghton Mifflin Harcourt” into Google and am lead here. WTF am I supposed to do now? My obvious choices are: “At Home,” “At School,” “Around the World,” “Recent News” . . . behind which one of these will I find info about Amos Oz? Since I’m sort of kind of “at home,” I click there and find this, which, at first glance, is about a) Best Sellers (not the Oz book), b) Reference & Professional (shouldn’t this be in “At School” or maybe “At Work”?), and c) Learn @ Home (which really merges that whole “Home” vs. “School” divide on the main menu). Info on all the HMH trade titles for sale in your local bookstore? . . . Well, if you read carefully enough, you’ll find the link beneath “Best Sellers,” which is fucking illogical and pretty deceitful. What’s particularly aggravating about this is the fact that this is at least the fourth different HMH site I’ve tried to use in the past two years and every version has been pure suck. Look, I know you’re bankrupt and all, but please, pay a teenager $50 to show you how people actually use websites. Or just get off the Web.

9 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The short novel is a form in which writers typically exercise great control over their material, accepting the abbreviated length as a kind of challenge, working within that limitation to craft a tight, jewel-like story in which all the elements of the piece—plot, tone, imagery—work together to create a unified artistic effect similar to that of a short story. (Think Heart of Darkness, Death in Venice, The Metamorphosis, or The Old Man and the Sea.) This is decidedly not the case with Rhyming Life & Death, Amos Oz’s latest work of fiction to be published in the U.S. in translation.

There is no doubt that Oz, one of Israel’s most prominent writers, is a master. For four decades he has been producing powerful and moving novels such as Elsewhere, Perhaps (1966; translated 1973) and Fima (1993); he is also the author of A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002; translated 2004), an extraordinarily beautiful memoir of his childhood in Jerusalem. But Rhyming Life & Death is quite simply a mess. For such a brief work it is annoyingly loose and undisciplined, and its overall artistic effect borders on incoherence.

The story takes place in Tel Aviv in the early 1980s. A famous Israeli writer in his forties—referred to only as the Author—has been invited to a cultural center to participate in a literary evening devoted to his work. His question-and-answer session with the audience is the last part of the program, preceded by a critic’s lecture and a professional reader’s recital of excerpts from one of the Author’s books.

Before arriving at the cultural center, the Author stops at a café, and we get our first chance to see his creative mind in action. He has barely communicated his order to the waitress before he has begun to speculate about her, and has soon mentally concocted an entire fictional history of her life. Far from this being an idle fancy of his, it turns out to be the Author’s primary way of seeing the world. Almost immediately we get similar speculative portraits of two other café customers, and then, at the cultural center, additional portraits of several audience members as well as the critic and the center’s director. In each case, the Author assigns the person a fictional name, even when it would be reasonable to expect (as with the critic and the director) that the Author would know the person’s real name.

After the program, the Author initiates a conversation with the professional reader, whose (apparently real) name is Rochele Reznik. He escorts her home, then wanders the streets in the company of his various thoughts and imaginings; later he returns to Rochele’s apartment and attempts to seduce her. Afterward, he wanders the streets again, thinking more thoughts, imagining more scenarios about the lives of the people he has met this evening. And that’s essentially it.

Which would be fine if the Author’s speculations, memories, and aesthetic theories were unique or compelling. But for the most part they seem banal, as when, for example, he imagines one of the audience members (whom he names Arnold Bartok) meditating on the supposedly symbiotic relationship between life and death:

One might say, he argues, that life and death came into the world together, as a dialectical pair whose members are indissolubly interdependent: say life and you’ve said death as well. And vice versa. The day life appeared on Earth, death appeared with it.

But this is a completely false supposition, Arnold Bartok reasons. For millions of years trillions of organisms flourished on Earth without any of them ever experiencing death. . . . Only in the present age, when a different form of reproduction, sexual reproduction, appeared, did ageing and death occur.

In only one instance do the Author’s thoughts rise above the predictable to take on a haunting, touching quality, when the Author debates with himself about the ultimate value of the fiction writer’s task:

He is covered in shame and confusion because he observes [his subjects] all from a distance, from the wings, as if they all exist only for him to make use of in his books. And with the shame comes a profound sadness that he is always an outsider, unable to touch or be touched . . . .

To write about things that exist, to try to capture a color or smell or sound in words, is a little like playing Schubert when Schubert is sitting in the hall, and perhaps sniggering in the darkness.

Even so, one can’t help feeling that these sentences would be more at home in an essay (such as those that appear in Oz’s wonderful 1999 collection of literary criticism, The Story Begins).

But the deeper problem with Rhyming Life & Death is illustrated by Oz’s handling of the Author’s return to Rochele’s apartment. At the start of this sequence, each new step in the narrative is introduced with words like “maybe,” “perhaps,” or “but there is another possibility”—as if the sequence were not really unfolding in time but were only another of the Author’s speculations. Nevertheless, actual narrative choices are being made: Oz inexplicably drops the qualifiers as suddenly as he’d introduced them; the sequence does after all unfold in a definitive manner; it contains actions and reactions; certain things transpire while others do not. Oz is trying to have it both ways, but the rules of fiction virtually forbid this. Because if the sequence is speculative, then nothing would prevent the entire novel from being speculative: not just everything the Author imagines about the lives of those around him but the visits to the café and the cultural center—the initial events from which the rest of the novel springs—and even the existence of the Author himself.

Of course, nothing in fiction is “real,” but in order to make any sense fiction has to posit itself as real or else call explicit attention to its artifice. But Rhyming Life & Death does neither. Instead, the text just hangs in a void, leaving no firm ground on which to engage with it. Rather than being an artist’s exploration of the “shame and confusion” of indulging in idle fancy, the work itself becomes an idle fancy. Even a narrative about the basic falseness of narrative could be made to feel true in the hands of a careful writer, but in this short, self-canceling novel Oz has abdicated the artist’s responsibility of shaping his text and making it signify something. Art doesn’t get much more incoherent.

18 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our review section is a review of Gail Hareven’s The Confessions of Noa Weber, which came out from Melville House Press earlier this year in Dalya Bilu’s stunning translation. (I didn’t mention her translation in the actual review, but wow, to capture this voice so convincingly, so compellingly, is quite a feat.)

I’m a big fan of this book, which, as happens to so many great books, was tragically under-reviewed when it came out this past April. (Although it was praised by Jessa Crispin at NPR and by Michael Orthofer at the Complete Review.)

Here’s the opening to my piece:

For years now, Melville House has been one of the most exciting independent presses out there. The political books they’ve done are fantastic, the Art of the Novella Series is arguably one of the most genius marketing/editorial publishing projects of the past decade, and the return of the Moby Lives blog (I still wear my “The whale is out there, man!” t-shirt every so often) is a brilliant addition to the current litblog scene. And on top of all that there’s the fine list of translations that they’ve been bringing out over the past few years. Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai. Marcel Proust’s The Lemoine Affair. Miguel de Cervantes’s The Dialogue of the Dogs. More recently, the Hans Fallada rediscovery project, which includes Every Man Dies Alone (a Best Translated Book Award nominee), The Drinker, and Little Man, What Now? And if that wasn’t enough, along comes Gail Hareven’s searing, addictive novel The Confessions of Noa Weber, another nominee for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award.

I know this is going to totally undersell the novel (honestly, I’m not sure my reviewing skills are up to this painfully honest book anyway), but The Confessions of Noa Weber reads like the best possible personal blog ever written. It’s a personal account of mystery writer Noa Weber’s lifelong obsession with Alek, a man she marries out of convenience (to escape her military duty), has a child with, and loves her whole life even though they separate pretty early on, and he moves to Russia, where he eventually finds a more placid existence with another woman.

Click here for the full review.

18 September 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For years now, Melville House has been one of the most exciting independent presses out there. The political books they’ve done are fantastic, the Art of the Novella Series is arguably one of the most genius marketing/editorial publishing projects of the past decade, and the return of the Moby Lives blog (I still wear my “The whale is out there, man!” t-shirt every so often) is a brilliant addition to the current litblog scene. And on top of all that there’s the fine list of translations that they’ve been bringing out over the past few years. Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai. Marcel Proust’s The Lemoine Affair. Miguel de Cervantes’s The Dialogue of the Dogs. More recently, the Hans Fallada rediscovery project, which includes Every Man Dies Alone (a Best Translated Book Award nominee), The Drinker, and Little Man, What Now? And if that wasn’t enough, along comes Gail Hareven’s searing, addictive novel The Confessions of Noa Weber, another nominee for the 2010 Best Translated Book Award.

I know this is going to totally undersell the novel (honestly, I’m not sure my reviewing skills are up to this painfully honest book anyway), but The Confessions of Noa Weber reads like the best possible personal blog ever written. It’s a personal account of mystery writer Noa Weber’s lifelong obsession with Alek, a man she marries out of convenience (to escape her military duty), has a child with, and loves her whole life even though they separate pretty early on, and he moves to Russia, where he eventually finds a more placid existence with another woman.

This is one of those books where the prose far out-strips the plot. Noa’s voice—so direct, so honest, so unabashed and sarcastic and pointed—is mesmerizing, drawing the reader in immediately:

The city of J lies at the top of the hills of J. That’s how I’d like to begin my story; at a calm distance, with a deep breath, in a panoramic shot focusing very slowly on a single street, and very slowly on a single house, “this is the house where I was born.” But you’d be making a fool of yourself if your J were Jerusalem, since every idiot knows about Jerusalem. And altogether it’s impossible to talk about Jerusalem any more. Impossible, that is to say, without “winding alleys” and “stone courtyards,” “caper bushes” and “Arab women in the market place.” And I have nothing to say about caper bushes and stone courtyards, nor do I have the faintest desire to flavor my story with the colorful patois of colorful Jerusalem characters, twirling their mustaches as they spin Oriental tales. [. . .]

It isn’t my personal problem as a writer. It isn’t my personal problem that a person who was born here can’t open with the words “I was born”—because so what? So you were born, good for you, you were born, okay, and then what? Because after “I was born” has to come an adventure story that will take the first person far, far away from his birthplace, and how far can you really get from here? To the Far East on the beaten track of the ex-warriors from the Golani Brigade? To Uman with the nutcases of the Bratslav Hassids to their rabbi’s grave? And however far you went you’d end up meeting someone who knew your cousin’s cousin. Not interesting. Not interesting at all.

As the novel progresses, Noa weaves together events from the past and present, filling out her life, from her time as a young pregnant woman to a very successful writer of feminist mystery novels, to an older woman who has never met any man who can replace her first love. An almost hypocritical situation given her politics, and one that generates self-criticism, but also this gorgeous “confession.”

There are very moving moments in this book, and it can be occasionally uncomfortable in the way that watching someone break down in a public forum (like a blog, like Facebook, like Twitter) can be a bit uncomfortable. But on the whole, this is a remarkable piece of literature. And the way Hareven chisels out the shape of Noa’s self makes me hope that her other works will also eventually make their way into English. Another amazing find by Melville House.

26 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews section is a piece by Dan Vitale on A. B. Yehoshua’s Friendly Fire.

In addition to reviewing for Three Percent (he recently reviewed Aharon Appelfeld’s Laish for us), Dan is a writer, editor, and book reviewer.

Yehoshua is considered to be one of the greatest Israeli writers of his generation, and over the past couple decades, Harcourt has made a number of his books available in English translation, including Mr. Mani, Five Seasons, Open Heart, and A Woman in Jerusalem.

Here’s the opening of Dan’s review of Friendly Fire:

The subtitle of A. B. Yehoshua’s Friendly Fire is A Duet, but its most distinguishing characteristic is the dissonance between its two voices. In the novel’s series of brief alternating sections we are shuttled between the perspectives of a gently controlling husband, Amotz Ya’ari, an engineer; and his increasingly distracted wife Daniela, a schoolteacher. On the morning after the first night of Hanukkah, Amotz takes Daniela to the Tel Aviv airport to board a flight to Nairobi, the layover stop on her way to Morogoro, Tanzania, to visit her brother-in-law Yirmiyahu, the widowed husband of her sister Shuli, who died a year before.

bq Instead of returning to Israel after Shuli’s death and the more recent termination of his job as chargé d’affaires of the Israeli economic mission in Dar es Salaam, Yirmiyahu has fled to an area southwest of Morogoro for a new job with an anthropological research team. Disgusted with his home country, Yirmiyahu is still bitterly mourning another death: that of his son Eyal, an Israeli soldier killed on the West Bank seven years before by friendly fire, just before the start of the second intifada.

Click here for the full review.

26 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The subtitle of A. B. Yehoshua’s Friendly Fire is A Duet, but its most distinguishing characteristic is the dissonance between its two voices. In the novel’s series of brief alternating sections we are shuttled between the perspectives of a gently controlling husband, Amotz Ya’ari, an engineer; and his increasingly distracted wife Daniela, a schoolteacher. On the morning after the first night of Hanukkah, Amotz takes Daniela to the Tel Aviv airport to board a flight to Nairobi, the layover stop on her way to Morogoro, Tanzania, to visit her brother-in-law Yirmiyahu, the widowed husband of her sister Shuli, who died a year before.

Instead of returning to Israel after Shuli’s death and the more recent termination of his job as chargé d’affaires of the Israeli economic mission in Dar es Salaam, Yirmiyahu has fled to an area southwest of Morogoro for a new job with an anthropological research team. Disgusted with his home country, Yirmiyahu is still bitterly mourning another death: that of his son Eyal, an Israeli soldier killed on the West Bank seven years before by friendly fire, just before the start of the second intifada.

The purpose of Daniela’s unprecedented solo journey (she is rarely separated from Amotz and relies on him to handle most of the day-to-day details of life) is to rekindle, with Yirmiyahu’s help, her mourning of Shuli, the gradual fading of which, she believes, is the cause of her recent absentmindedness:

it’s not consolation she wants. On the contrary, she is looking for precise words, forgotten facts—or maybe new ones—that will inflame her pain and grief . . . and crack open the crust of forgetfulness that has begun to envelop her.

Amotz, who has stayed behind so as not to intrude on his wife’s mission, has business of his own to conduct: as the head of an elevator-design firm, he must discover the source of a flaw in a newly constructed apartment building that on windy days is causing the elevator shaft to wail and howl, emitting “a growl of stifled fury that at certain floors shifts into mournful sobbing.” Throughout the novel’s seven chapters—one for each of the remaining nights of Hanukkah—Amotz will attempt to solve this problem while also contending with the numerous grievances and emergencies of his family: his ailing father, founder of the firm; his estranged daughter; his son Moran, currently in military custody for shirking reserve duty; his temperamental daughter-in-law Efrat; and Efrat and Moran’s two anxious, high-strung young children.

Meanwhile, Daniela is quickly seduced by the quiet rhythms and bleak beauty of life in her brother-in-law’s new home at the anthropologists’ base camp. She spends relatively little time with Yirmiyahu, befriending the elderly groundskeeper, several members of the anthropological team, and, most affectingly, Sijjin Kuang, the stately Sudanese infirmary nurse who also works as Yirmiyahu’s driver and is thus frequently called upon to convey Daniela to and from various locations. Sijjin Kuang, who has survived the unspeakably violent civil war of the southern Sudan, is an animist who worships (in Daniela’s words) “spirits” and “winds”; she becomes a source of quiet strength and comfort to Daniela in the face of Yirmiyahu’s fierce disdain for his fellow Israelis, which he is sometimes not above taking out on his sister-in-law.

The novel operates in two parallel registers with little in common: ironic comedy in Israel, solemn melancholy in Tanzania. Yehoshua expertly captures and subtly contrasts the richness of Amotz’s busy week in Tel Aviv with the stark poetry of the landscape around Morogoro. What’s more, he is a genius at conjuring living, breathing characters out of just a few lines of dialogue and a brief physical description. And there is plenty of room in each half of the narrative for short, memorable digressions. In Israel, for example, we get a tour of the military training camp in Karkur where Moran has been placed under detention; in Tanzania, through the thoughts and observations of Daniela and Yirmiyahu, we are treated to an analysis of some instructive linguistic contrasts between the Hebrew and King James versions of the Old Testament.

But as Friendly Fire progresses and then begins to wind down, the drawbacks of its dual structure become more apparent. While it takes most of the novel’s length for Amotz to eventually confront and subdue the “uninvited spirits” trapped in the elevator shaft, Daniela’s longed-for epiphany about her dead sister arrives too abruptly, and too early in her portion of the story, to make much of an impact on the reader. Instead, she becomes a nearly passive sounding board for Yirmiyahu’s rage toward the Israeli government’s prosecution of its continual war with the Palestinians, and the lengthy (if fascinating) objections he raises against the Biblical book of his namesake, the angry prophet Jeremiah.

(Incidentally, it’s unusual to fault a Yehoshua novel for poor design. Among his many other works in English translation, each one vibrant and rewarding in unique ways, are several distinguished by their structural elegance, including the genuine 20th-century masterpiece Mr. Mani, a book so architecturally daring and intricate that it defies quick summary here.)

Most disappointing of all, when Amotz and Daniela come back together at novel’s end, their reunion feels hurried and strained. Neither seems to show much real interest in the other’s adventures, despite the fact that each has had tender thoughts about the other during the week-long separation. Nor has the significance of the novel’s setting during Hanukkah ever really been established or elaborated upon. Instead, as husband and wife prepare to light the candles on the final night of the holiday, we are left with a feeling of regret over too many possibilities unexplored, too many potential echoes unexpressed, two intriguing, interwoven melodies adding up to less than the sum of their parts.

7 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our book review section is Dan Vitale’s piece on Aharon Appelfeld’s Laish, which was translated from the Hebrew by Aloma Halter and published by Shocken Books earlier this year.

Appelfeld has had a number of titles translated into English, including Badenheim 1939 and The Story of a Life.

In addition to being a long-time reader of Three Percent, Dan Vitale is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. And here’s the opening of his review:

The opening sentences of Laish, the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld’s fourteenth novel to be published in English translation, are deceptively like those of a typical first-person confessional story:

“My name is Laish, and those who like me call me Laishu. I have yet to run into anyone with such a strange name. . . . I’ve heard that the name comes from Hungary. Who knows?—my parents died young. A few years ago, I could still see them in a blurred way. Now I’m fifteen, and their features have been effaced from my memory.”

The boy’s engaging, conversational voice, his tragic orphanhood, the focus on his interior life: none prepares us for the novel as a whole. It turns out that Laish will be the faithfully observant narrator of a collective experience, to the point where his personality is virtually relegated to the periphery of the story. But this shift is characteristic of Appelfeld’s method throughout the book, which is to constantly upend the reader’s expectations in favor of striking and uniquely unexpected gestures.

Click here to read the entire piece.

(And looking ahead to next week we’ll have reviews of Bolano’s The Skating Rink and Tanguy Viel’s Beyond Suspicion.)

7 August 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The opening sentences of Laish, the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld’s fourteenth novel to be published in English translation, are deceptively like those of a typical first-person confessional story:

“My name is Laish, and those who like me call me Laishu. I have yet to run into anyone with such a strange name. . . . I’ve heard that the name comes from Hungary. Who knows?—my parents died young. A few years ago, I could still see them in a blurred way. Now I’m fifteen, and their features have been effaced from my memory.”

The boy’s engaging, conversational voice, his tragic orphanhood, the focus on his interior life: none prepares us for the novel as a whole. It turns out that Laish will be the faithfully observant narrator of a collective experience, to the point where his personality is virtually relegated to the periphery of the story. But this shift is characteristic of Appelfeld’s method throughout the book, which is to constantly upend the reader’s expectations in favor of striking and uniquely unexpected gestures.

Another such gesture is Appelfeld’s unwillingness to identify the period in which the novel is set (most likely sometime between the world wars). Laish is a member of a convoy of Jewish pilgrims making their way south along the river Prut, through what is now the borderland between eastern Romania and western Moldova. The convoy’s destination is Jerusalem, to which the pilgrims have been bidden to emigrate by Shimon the Righteous, the holy man who once led them. After Shimon’s death, their progress is continually thwarted by conflicts between the group of religious old men who nominally still direct the convoy and the temperamental wagon drivers and corrupt dealers who insist on making lengthy stops at every village, town, or city the convoy passes, to carouse or to conduct trade.

Appelfeld emphasizes this sense of a perpetually postponed goal by having his narrator Laish shift incessantly away from the present tense to relate events that occurred at differing and frequently unspecified times in the past, so that we are sometimes unsure exactly where we are chronologically: although the present action of the novel spans about six months, the narrative encompasses many years. As Laish puts it, “I feel that these years have been solidly planted within me, and that I’ll be with the convoy for the rest of my life.”

One way we know we are making progress through time is the succession of characters to whom Laish is bound as a kind of indentured servant: first Fingerhut, a bitterly angry dealer; then Ploosh, a violent wagon driver; and finally Sruel, also a wagon driver, a convicted murderer who now spends much of his days communing with the falcon with whom he has developed a mystical rapport. Of the three, only Sruel is kind to Laish while at the same time putting him to work; in this combination of traits he resembles another man with a strong influence over the boy: Old Avraham, Laish’s gentle but demanding religion teacher.

As the convoy moves southward throughout the summer and into the fall, from just north of Czernowitz to the port city of Galacz, it encounters one obstacle after another: thieves, flooding, a typhoid epidemic and—casting a pall over everything else—a steady loss of morale and resolve. The number of pilgrims dwindles, from death or defection, until by the time it limps into Galacz, where passage by ship to Jerusalem must be booked, the convoy is less than half the size it was during the summer. But still Laish’s narrative (in the language of Aloma Halter’s measured, often beautiful translation from the Hebrew) maintains its calm, detached observation of hardship: “That night, our wagons were beset by creatures of the darkness who took the form of aggressive beggars, the bitterly disabled, and, most painful of all, child-demons who would thrust their frail hands into our wagons, snatching whatever they could.”

In Galacz, a new challenge awaits: the urgent need to acquire the money necessary to purchase enough tickets for the pilgrims to board the ship to Jerusalem. The convoy begins to sell off its equipment and provisions, and some of the wagon drivers also sell merchandise they have stolen from the city’s stores and warehouses. Sruel seems transformed under the pressure, and commits a desperate, uncharitable act against a defenseless member of the convoy that confirms, by negative example, the truth of one of Old Avraham’s earlier warnings to Laish: “He was sure that if we were strict about saying our prayers, we would leave [Galacz] as new people. One needed only to purify oneself and refine one’s thoughts. The main thing was not to despair, because despair was rooted in impurity.” Here, as elsewhere in Laish, Appelfeld may be intending to impart a lesson about the need to hold to one’s spiritual ideals in the face of competition from the baser human instincts, but if so the lesson is muted, gently implied but never stated outright.

Finally, on the eve of the convoy’s departure from Galacz, Appelfeld ends the novel not with details of the business of setting sail for Jerusalem but with a shocking, discordant, and highly poetic image: the stricken face of Sruel’s unfortunate victim. It’s an indelible moment, and one more example of Appelfeld’s ability to deftly overturn the reader’s expectations. He also leaves unspoken a plain yet disturbing fact: after the arduous 200-mile journey from Czernowitz to Galacz, Jerusalem—the holy place even Sruel once spoke of as the future site of a “different and purified life” for all the convoy’s pilgrims—is still more than a thousand miles away.

21 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’re into the home stretch now . . . For the next three days we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.



Khirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck. (Israel, Ibis Editions)

I won’t be surprised if this post gets attacked by someone in the “blogosphere”: Jewish-Arab relations and military actions is an intellectual powder keg. So before saying anything, I want to make it clear that this book—written from the point of view of an Israeli soldier involved in the takeover of Khirbet Khizeh and the evacuation of the Arabs living there—is on the longlist is on here for aesthetic reasons only. And for the quality of the prose and the translation.

That preface might not even be necessary . . . Khirbet Khizeh is considered a classic work, and although it has been the focus of many debates over the course of its history, what’s interesting is how it was received when first published in 1949, just months after the 1948 war:

Fifty-nine years ago, when “Khirbet Khizeh” was first published, it was not an expose of wartime misconduct. No expose was needed. In 1949, few Israelis were unaware that Arab villages had been forcibly evacuated. As historian Anita Shapira has shown in a brilliant essay on the novella’s reception from its publication until the 1990s, though “Khirbet Khizeh” was a best-seller in its first years, and though it was much discussed in newspapers and magazines, its veracity was hardly challenged and few questioned whether such an unpretty account of events should be published. When “Khirbet Khizeh” first came out, it was a rumination on something people knew to be true – how could they not? – and its aim was to clearly describe what had appeared vague in the fog of war and then the exaltation of victory: the moral muck inevitable in creating a Jewish majority in Palestine. This was the “Khirbet Khizeh” that was added to the high school curriculum. [from Noah Efron’s review in Haaretz ]

As mentioned in brief above, this short novella is about the violent expulsion of the Palestine villagers by Israeli soldiers acting under orders. The hatred the Jewish soldiers express about the Arabs, the fact that they’re doing this because “they were ordered,” the callous, unforgiving behavior, allows one to make parallels between this situation and other wars/conflicts. And even in the abstract, this base violence toward “the other” is universal, and the book illustrates as much about human nature as it does about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

And for all the beautiful descriptions of Khirbet Khizeh, there are passages that are tough to swallow, that force the reader to see the worst parts of war. From a section after the village is secured and all the inhabitants are being loaded up and sent off:

“They’re just like animals,” Yehuda explained to us, but we did not reply.

The women were gathered onto another truck, and they began to scream and weep, and no one envied those who had to look after them. [. . .]

We felt a mood of beggary, pus, and leprosy, and all that was lacking was the sound of dirges and charity saveth from death.

“Ugh, revolting!” said Shlomo.

“Better they should die!” said Yehuda.

“How many blind people and cripples do they have in this village!” said Shlomo.

Not always so explicit, these sorts of sentiments run throughout the novella and make this a bit hard to read. One of the things that complicates, and elevates, this novel is the main character’s interior reaction to these events, which isn’t always straight down the party line:

But not this . . . not this . . . something was still unclear. Just a kind of bad feeling. Like being forced into a nightmare and not being allowed to wake up from it. You’re caught up with several voices. You don’t know what. Maybe the answer is to stand up and resist? But maybe, the opposite, to see and be and feel . . .

Or:

My guts cried out. Colonizers, they shouted. Lies, my guts shouted. Khirbet Khizeh is not ours. The Spandau gun never gave us any rights. Oh, my guts screamed. What hadn’t they told us about refugees. Everything, everything was for the refugees, their welfare, their rescue—our refugees, naturally. Those we were driving out—that was a totally different matter. Wait. Two thousand years of exile. The whole story. Jews being killed. Europe. We were masters now.

But as David Shulman writes in his afterword, “this story is in fact far from being moralistic, utterly remote from preaching and pontification.” And maybe that’s what’s made it such a lasting book, one that’s prompted a lot of discussion and debate, as great books should.

S. Yizhar—the pen name for Yizhar Smilansky—passed away rather recently (2006), was a longtime member of Knesset, and in addition to Khirbet Khizeh, is known for his 1,156-page magnum opus, Days of Tziklag. (Which hasn’t been translated into English.)

It’s unfortunate that Ibis Editions doesn’t get more attention from American reviewers and publications. They’re doing some very interesting books, and personally, I like the simple, unadorned style and feel of this title. We’ll make a special effort to review more of their books for Three Percent in the upcoming months. But for now, if you can get your hands on it, Khirbet Khizeh is worth checking out.

....
Miruna, a Tale
Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă
Reviewed by Alta Ifland

Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .

Read More >

Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .

Read More >

I Called Him Necktie
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .

Read More >

Return to Killybegs
Return to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .

Read More >

The Last Days
The Last Days by Laurent Seksik
Reviewed by Peter Biellp

Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.

It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .

Read More >

Selected Stories
Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

To call Kjell Askildsen’s style sparse or terse would be to understate just how far he pushes his prose. Almost nothing is explained, elaborated on. In simple sentences, events occur, words are exchanged, narrators have brief thoughts. As often as. . .

Read More >

Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories
Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes. . .

Read More >