October 14, 2004
Writer Confronts Intifada Lethargy
"I'm just so tired," Israeli author Orly Castel-Bloom says. She's not speaking about the effects of her recent flight into Paris, where she has come to deliver some lectures. Nor is it the interviews she has given since landing earlier in the day, although that has zapped her, too. It's an existential exhaustion that keeps her thinking about sleep all the time these days.
Castel-Bloom, author of 10 books -- the most recent of which, "Human Parts" (David R. Godine) has been translated into English -- can't get the state of affairs in her home country off her mind.
"Human Parts" chronicles the intersecting lives of ordinary, flawed Israelis trying to survive a bitterly cold winter that coincides with an increase in suicide bombings. The characters range from a Kurdish refugee washerwoman to the spoiled scion of a real estate family, but all live lives against the backdrop of terror that seems to incapacitate their ability to function fully.
The novel uses satire and absurdism to look squarely at contemporary Israeli life and society. For years, Castel-Bloom has thought about the social conditions of lower and middle-class Israelis: the prevalence of poverty, the constant need to pursue money just to scrape by. But she and her contemporaries refused to write about the political situation -- the conflict with the Palestinians, the vicious fighting among Israelis about how best to deal with the situation. Now, however, it's all she can think about.
And it's tiring her out.
When asked how she copes, she responds quickly, "I sleep."
Coming to Paris is a chance to close the drapes and shut out the world, even if only momentarily, although she knows that post-Sept. 11 realities will catch up with her; even here in France, where they fool themselves into thinking that they live in a dream of fraternite, protected against what has spread beyond Israel into the world.
"Israel is a laboratory. It's a very radical situation. Look, my daughter is going to the army; she has to take two buses to get there, but she's a new driver. So should I let her take the two buses or give her my car. She doesn't use the side mirrors, I just found out last week, which is very dangerous.... These are the kinds of existential questions we have to ask."
Motherhood itself, says Castel-Bloom is cruel in Israel, where children grow up with a casual knowledge of death from the first. She recently took her 12-year-old son and his friends to a disco so they could dance to the music of Fifty-Cent and Nelly. There, she overheard them debating the relative chances of getting killed in a discotheque versus a restaurant.
She can only hope that when his turn for army service comes around, he won't end up in some of the more dangerous platoons. That, and that Israel will become a better place for her children in the future. What else is a mother to do?
Asked if there is anything that gives her joy or solace these days, Castel-Bloom cites "Seinfeld," gardening and her work.
"It's hard to write these days," she says. "I try to write objectively, especially after 'Human Parts.' I've been trying to retreat from myself, but my situation is so s----y that I retreat from writing. Still, I write, even though I write about reality. It's the monster I can't get rid of, but it's still a way out of the despair."
For all the uncertainty that has infected Israeli life, Castel-Bloom believes in the necessity of the Israeli state, not just for herself -- although as a writer she requires immersion in the language and life of the country. She would understand if her children wanted to move away, to go somewhere where they wouldn't have to worry about the relative lack of safety of riding a bus or driving a car. But she has to stay. Besides, she couldn't leave the climate: Tel Aviv; the beach. One day, she says, she will swim in the ocean every morning with the other grandmothers.
As a second-generation Israeli, one who did not help build the country but inherited it, she never thought that she would end up having to fight for her own existence, for her country's existence, and that the struggle would leave her, her neighbors and friends, so worn out. In the end, she thinks, exhaustion on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, may be the only way out of the current state of affairs.
"The intifada must stop immediately and peace should be achieved immediately or else I will go to sleep all day," she says. "I can't bear it."
Orly Castel-Bloom will speak Thursday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. about "A Fragile Life: Terror and Satire in Contemporary Israel" at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 3663 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. To R.S.V.P., visit www.zocalola.org. She will also speak about "Living and Writing in Uncertain Times" Sunday, Oct. 24, at 7:30 p.m at the UCLA Faculty Center. For more information, call (310) 825-5387.