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.

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.

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.

26 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Eshkol Nevo’s Homesick, translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston and published earlier this year by Dalkey Archive.

Monica is a regular contributor to Three Percent, and runs her own excellent website, Salonica.

Eshkol Nevo’s book is the first (?) in Dalkey’s Hebrew Literature Series. (I think. The Dalkey site is a bitch to navigate.) Monica makes it sound really interesting, and if you want more info on Nevo and Homesick, visit the author page, scroll down, and
watch the video interview/presentation. (Dead horse beating as always, but it would be a lot easier if, like with most other videos on the internet, I could embed that interview right here. But ah well.)

Here’s the opening of Monica’s review:

Eshkol Nevo has plumbed the emotional depths of the word “homesick” and come up with gratifying homage to the feeling of longing. As a member of the new guard of Israeli writers, Homesick is Nevo’s first translation into English. And what a fine choice it is to introduce English-speaking readers to Hebrew culture and literature. What many of us know about Israel is what we read in the media as well as what we watch on television—lots of discord and bloodshed, the constant search for peace. This book avoids any political message, instead focusing on the lives of the characters that are searching for their own version of peace.

A stratum of stories and viewpoints, Homesick delves into the tensions between loss and compromise, discontent and hope, self-perception and desire during the year of 1995 when Rabin was assassinated. It begins with Amir and Noa, a young student couple who are moving into an apartment in a house owned by the Zakian family. The house is in the area known as Castel, situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Nevo follows the lives of everyone in the house—Sima and Moshe Zakian, a young couple with two small children and Moshe’s parents, Avram and Gina. Added to this intimate variety of viewpoints are the young boy next door, Yotam, and his parents whose family just suffered the loss of their son, Gidi, to the war in Lebanon. There is also Saddiq, a construction worker, who lived in the Zakian house many years ago and frequent epistolary appearances from Amir’s friend, Modi. This may seem like a cavalcade of characters that could be overwhelming but it is tempered by Nevo’s short, incisive entries in each character’s voice. What’s even more impressive is that Nevo alternates these voices between first and third person to help the reader immediately identify the character. Focusing mostly on the interiority of the characters allows us to oscillate between voices and viewpoints while we learn the subtleties of each character’s psyche.

Click here to read the full review.

26 October 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Eshkol Nevo has plumbed the emotional depths of the word “homesick” and come up with gratifying homage to the feeling of longing. As a member of the new guard of Israeli writers, Homesick is Nevo’s first translation into English. And what a fine choice it is to introduce English-speaking readers to Hebrew culture and literature. What many of us know about Israel is what we read in the media as well as what we watch on television—lots of discord and bloodshed, the constant search for peace. This book avoids any political message, instead focusing on the lives of the characters that are searching for their own version of peace.

A stratum of stories and viewpoints, Homesick delves into the tensions between loss and compromise, discontent and hope, self-perception and desire during the year of 1995 when Rabin was assassinated. It begins with Amir and Noa, a young student couple who are moving into an apartment in a house owned by the Zakian family. The house is in the area known as Castel, situated between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Nevo follows the lives of everyone in the house—Sima and Moshe Zakian, a young couple with two small children and Moshe’s parents, Avram and Gina. Added to this intimate variety of viewpoints are the young boy next door, Yotam, and his parents whose family just suffered the loss of their son, Gidi, to the war in Lebanon. There is also Saddiq, a construction worker, who lived in the Zakian house many years ago and frequent epistolary appearances from Amir’s friend, Modi. This may seem like a cavalcade of characters that could be overwhelming but it is tempered by Nevo’s short, incisive entries in each character’s voice. What’s even more impressive is that Nevo alternates these voices between first and third person to help the reader immediately identify the character. Focusing mostly on the interiority of the characters allows us to oscillate between voices and viewpoints while we learn the subtleties of each character’s psyche.

Amir and Noa power the novel with the intense yet fragile nature of their relationship. Amir, a student in psychology and Noa, a photography student, vacillate between maintaining a simpatico relationship and wanting the freedom of being alone. This feeling of malaise in the relationship leads to Amir’s developing relationship with Sima, the attractive mother next door. Sima is struggling with her husband, Moshe, over religion which is their major bone of contention. Yotam, whose parents are literally cordoned off from each other by their own grief, also befriend Amir. Noa grows closer with Sima because even though they are both twenty-six years old, Noa finds the notion of settling down in as a couple constraining and looks to Sima for guidance. And among all these alliances, they are merely vying for their own version of an inner sanctum that they can call home. All characters reach the point in whatever type love they are experiencing—love of country, physical love, spiritual love, familial love—of wanting to abandon their situations in favor of living a life without the pain caused by loving someone else. This allure of leaving is shown exquisitely in this passage where Amir is waiting for Noa and irritated by having to wait for her, contemplates exiting the relationship:

If she doesn’t come in the next five minutes—I ‘m going alone. She just has to have all those scenes, so there’ll be a little tension, a little drama, otherwise she can’t create, right? Look who’s talking, Mister I’m-Out-of-Here. What was that supposed to be last night? You’re sitting in the living room, all cosy and comfy, eating soup—what could be more wintry than that?—and you start with those prickly thoughts. What happened, things started feeling homey and you got scared? Addicted, that’s what you are. Addicted to change. You pretend that all you want is four walls, a home, and then, the minute it happens, you start planning your getaway. Wait, hold on a second, maybe I’m putting the wrong spin on things. Maybe I really do need to get away for a couple of days, to breathe the air of solitude. But how? I sink without her, revert to being a spectator, a moaner, a masturbator, and when she comes home, my whole body reaches out for her and I want to devour her, to peel and eat her, then listen to her stories with all those little details only she sees. But that’s not actually a contradiction, not at all, she can be fantastic and still suffocate you with that dissatisfaction of hers that bubbles over on to you too. Oh come on, what are you, a symbol of serenity? A logo for shanti? Get serious, don’t put it all on her. But it’s a fact that before we moved in together, it was different. Before you moved in together? It was a lie, a pretence sprinkled with enough bits of truth to make it work, and now—now you want to close the boot on her.

Abandonment appears again as a theme with Yotam, the ten-year-old neighbor boy, who simultaneously feels abandoned and yearns to abandon when he finds a rotting house to hide in:

Inside, there were two rusty cans, a pile of coals and a smell, like someone had done a poo. And there was a mattress that looked new and a long shirt that only had one sleeve. It’s really kind of nice here, I thought. There’s no fridge or TV, but there aren’t any gigantic pictures of someone who’s dead or memorial candles with a smell that makes you feel sick and parent who don’t talk to each other. And not having a roof isn’t so bad either. Winter’s over already and it won’t rain any more. So who needs a roof? Just the opposite. A house without a roof is cool, like the car David’s brother has with the convertible top, the once we once rode in to a class party. You can sleep on the mattress at night and see all the stars, the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper, and the Milky Way that has no milk. Yes, I said out loud so it would be harder to change my mind later, I’ll stay here until night-time. And if it’s nice, maybe I’ll stay here for ever. No one cares anyway. They even forgot my birthday. I could disappear for a year now and they wouldn’t even notice. Just the opposite. They’d be glad.

This longing to belong, to be loved, pulses through the narratives leaving the reader feel sympathy for every character. Nevo establishes the rules of alienation for each character as the quick pacing pulls us along. The shifting voices and point-of-views coupled with the direct and intimate prose feel like we are dive-bombing into their emotions. Ultimately, each character discovers that their meaning of home can change. And that they can change. This is what makes this novel feel hopeful and redemptive. We all struggle to come to terms with who we think we are and how our self-perception can be so differ greatly when you enter into relationships that always involve some type of sacrifice.

There is a bomb scare, which couldn’t be avoided by Nevo and rightly so, but it grabs the focus for a moment and then evanesces into yesterday’s news without hijacking the novel or making it a centerpiece for manipulated drama. It brushes up against the lives of the characters, shows that it is a part of their existence, but doesn’t force the reader into a political corner. There are also moments of levity, but this was the one misstep of Nevo’s that seems distracting. The humorous scenes border on farcical, like a network sitcom offering the outlandish as plausible. In particular, there is a scene with Avram who is suffereing from hallucinations and believes that the construction worker, Saddiq, is his long lost dead son, Nissan. Saddiq finagles his way into Avram and Gina’s home to claim the house his family owned before the Zakians and in search of a family heirloom buried within one of the walls. The police arrive and hilarity supposedly ensues. This detracted from the beautiful and heartrending tone of the novel. This is a small indiscretion considering the scope and craftsmanship of the novel.

Homesick is a novel that engages on all levels and satisfies with its depth and style. Sondra Silverston’s translation is impressive. Well-written and translated well, this novel is a fitting introduction to the literature of Israel. Not often enough are we given such an accessible and universal look into lives of characters that seem a world away but want exactly what we want—people and places that we can call home.

13 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Review Section is a piece by Jeff Waxman on Assaf Gavron’s Almost Dead, which was translated from the Hebrew by the author and James Lever and published by HarperCollins.

I’m really glad Jeff brought this book to my attention . . . It was one that I had missed in entering info into the Translation Database, but more importantly, it sounds really interesting.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Jeff is a bookseller at Seminary Co-op and runs The Front Table. He’s also a frequent contributor here and is on the Best Translated Book Award fiction committee.

And here’s the beginning of his review:

Big publishing houses have a lot going for them. They’ve got money and media access and the power to bring a book to the forefront of a very noisy culture, if only for a moment. And, like the small presses, they have some outstanding people working for them—publishers, editors, and publicists trying their damnedest to make something like art. What they don’t have very often is a coherent and cohesive vision, even for their individual imprints, and I hope it’s not too unkind to say that they don’t often have very interesting books. Instead, they seem to expend a lot of their energy—and money—in getting excited about the unexciting.

All of this is why I was so delighted to see Harper Perennial come out with Assaf Gavron’s Almost Dead. Harper Perennial is one of the best corners of that house, and a translation isn’t unheard of there, but a political satire that is artfully and ingeniously constructed is a hugely welcome surprise. Translated by the author with James Lever, Almost Dead is everything I always wanted and never expected from a big publisher.

Set in present-day Israel, these are intertwined stories of Croc—a secular, ambivalent Israeli—and Fahmi—a comatose and conflicted Palestinian suicide bomber. Around them, there’s a society in turmoil, a morass of Western-influenced post-industrial business people overlaying a subjugated population seething with enmity and regret.

Click here to read the full review.

13 May 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Big publishing houses have a lot going for them. They’ve got money and media access and the power to bring a book to the forefront of a very noisy culture, if only for a moment. And, like the small presses, they have some outstanding people working for them—publishers, editors, and publicists trying their damnedest to make something like art. What they don’t have very often is a coherent and cohesive vision, even for their individual imprints, and I hope it’s not too unkind to say that they don’t often have very interesting books. Instead, they seem to expend a lot of their energy—and money—in getting excited about the unexciting.

All of this is why I was so delighted to see Harper Perennial come out with Assaf Gavron’s Almost Dead. Harper Perennial is one of the best corners of that house, and a translation isn’t unheard of there, but a political satire that is artfully and ingeniously constructed is a hugely welcome surprise. Translated by the author with James Lever, Almost Dead is everything I always wanted and never expected from a big publisher.

Set in present-day Israel, these are intertwined stories of Croc—a secular, ambivalent Israeli—and Fahmi—a comatose and conflicted Palestinian suicide bomber. Around them, there’s a society in turmoil, a morass of Western-influenced post-industrial business people overlaying a subjugated population seething with enmity and regret.

The book opens with a bang as Croc’s usual bus to work explodes a few blocks after his stop. Before and for a short time after that near-miss, Croc’s life is dominated by his workplace and merely complicated by his girlfriend, Duchi. Life in an embattled and foreign country rendered familiar to most English-language readers through the wondrous universality of fuck:

My first thought was: fuck, how will I get to work from now on? Those fuckers hit every possible means of transportation. Am I going to have to take cabs now? Buy another car? Too expensive . . .

But when that first bombing is followed by a rifle attack that kills the hitchhiker in his car, and he survives a café bombing soon after, Croc becomes a minor celebrity and the target of one last, very personal, attack. This is satire and this is life; separating the two in any society is difficult, but separating them in a tragically hysterical culture in the persistent throes of PTSD is nearly impossible. Croc’s appearances on Israeli television are nightmarishly comic and serve only to alienate him further from his experiences.

But now I was also. . . CrocAttack! Magnet of attention, symbol of resistance, vessel for other people’s ideas. New forces were taking control of my life. . . every day I was approached by people I’d never talked to who knew what I needed, or who needed to know what I thought. . . It didn’t matter to them that, in most cases, I had no opinion.

If trauma can be drawn-out and painfully constant, Fahmi suffers more. Dispossessed of their homes, but not their heritage, Fahmi and his brother Bilahl are mired in the stories of their grandfather’s heroic struggle against the Israelis of two generations ago. Estranged from their families by their politics, the two brothers pursue their own violent agenda that leads them closer and closer to the events in Croc’s half of this book.

But what isn’t in Fahmi’s memory of the past is his tortured present; he spends this novel in a hospital bed, unresponsive but painfully aware, comatose and confused and lost in fractured memory:

“Good movement of the eyes . . . Dr. Hartom will be happy to hear . . .”

My brain must be stuck.

“And now it’s time for your wash . . . “

A never ending dream, and always the same.

Through alternating chapters of Croc’s mounting anxiety and Fahmi’s fever dreams and memories, the reader gains access to the strange duality of life in a country that lies at the margins of another state, a place where everything has two names and two histories. In a sense, this is as much a book of class and race as, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the geography is almost incidental to that story. Almost.

Instead, we have a wonderfully vivid book that builds something beautiful on the strange trajectories that bring two lives into such mortal proximity. And at the same time, we have a book that is very much of its time and of its place, a book without easy answers or any clear idea of morality. Gavron’s empathy, voice, and outstanding construction are appealing, and this book is really an exciting contribution to the literature and to the Levantine conversation.

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.

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.

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