November 2, 2006
A Different Israel
When Israel is discussed these days, more often than not it is in terms of an existential crisis, or "the situation," or as the subject of international news headlines. However, reading recently published works by three different Israeli fiction authors, Etgar Keret, Benjamin Tammuz and A.B. Yehoshua, is a bracing reminder that there is an Israel beyond the headlines, a country that despite its short history and relatively small population has produced a world-class literature.|
Writing in modern Hebrew, a language that few read with any fluency (even in Israel), the accomplishment is all the more remarkable. Israel has already produced several generations of great and memorable writers.
A quick greatest hits list would certainly include works by novelists such as S.Y. Agnon ("21 Stories"), who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966; Amos Oz ("My Michael," "Black Book"); Aharon Appelfeld ("Badenheim 1939"); David Grossman ("See: Under Love"), as well as the poets Byalik and, one of my favorites, the late poet Yehuda Amichai ("Selected Poems" or "Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems").
Currently, Keret, born in 1967, is one of Israel's most popular young authors. He has published several collections of short stories in Hebrew, as well as several graphic novels, and has written TV, as well as film scripts. His short stories have inspired some 40 short films. This year's Sundance Film Festival presented "Wristcutters: a Love Story" based on Keret's short story, "Kneller's Happy Campers."
Keret's first English-language short story collection, "The Nimrod Flip Out," has recently been published in paperback and is a great introduction to his work.
Keret's stories are short, many no longer than a few pages, and feature a deadpan-style that is often surreal or darkly comic. In one story, a man picks up a girl, only to discover that in the middle of the night, she transforms into a hairy-backed, beer-guzzling guy's guy. Although dismayed at first, the narrator eventually realizes he now has the best of both worlds. In another story, a father and mother hate their child's pet dog and try covertly to kill it -- but each time the loyal pet returns -- albeit a bit more ragged and damaged. Reading Keret's work you have both a sense of the modern world and of the dissonance of so-called normal life in Israel.
By contrast, "The Minotaur," by Tammuz, who died in 1989, is a much more psychologically intense novel. Tammuz was born in Russia in 1919 and arrived in then Palestine five years later. A diplomat as well as a sculptor, for many years Tammuz was the literary editor of Ha'aretz.
Recently reissued by Europa Editions, "The Minotaur" was originally published in 1981, at which time Graham Greene hailed it as one of the best novels of the year. It is easy to see why it appealed to Greene.
"The Minotaur" is not a spy novel, per se. However, it is about a spy and the relationship he develops with a young woman he sees on a bus, permeating her life without ever meeting her. His obsession with her creates a psychological prison with no escape for the two of them, causing great collateral damage to her, her fiancé and his own family.
Finally, and this is the case of saving the best for last, the recently published "A Woman in Jerusalem" by Yehoshua may be the best novel I have read this year.
Sometimes you taste a great wine and are immediately aware that what you are tasting is at a whole level of better than anything else you've been tasting. That is what reading "A Woman in Jerusalem" is like.
Yehoshua's novel succeeds at being both entertaining and lyrical. "A Woman in Jerusalem" centers on Yulia, a Soviet immigrant who was the victim of a terrorist bombing. A week has gone by and her body has not been claimed. A muckracking journalist is about to expose her employer, a bakery, for not knowing and not caring. It falls to the human resources manager to discover who this woman was and to restore her dignity.
No one in the novel is ever named, other than Yulia, and she is dead. The human resources manager is our guide on a journey that questions national identity (the woman was a non-Jew, yet became attached to Israel even when her husband and son returned to Russia) and love ( a photograph reveals her beauty and the manager discovers how others fell under her spell even as he does).
He must reconsider his relationships with his mother, his ex-wife, his daughter and his secretary. He accompanies the casket back to Russia, undergoing a series of misadventures that are comic, poignant and, in the final analysis, optimistic.
It is not a given that difficult times produce great literature. But it is a salve and a comfort that reading these novels provide a portal to accessing another Israel, no less important and newsworthy, one that we can travel to just by opening a book.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.