Reading Israel

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Written by Danielle Simpson

When was the last time you read a book by an Israeli author? Yes, I thought so. If you had asked me that question just over a year ago I would have replied in much the same manner. ‘Hmm, I’m not sure really’. ‘Actually, I am not sure if I have ever read a book by an Israeli author.’ Working in a university library I get to see many a course syllabus. Two summers past I was working on filling an especially interesting list to be used by a visiting Israeli scholar who would be spending a year teaching writing and literature courses on campus. Not just a scholar but a working writer whose second novel to be translated into English was soon to be published in the US and UK.

I’d always meant to audit a literature class. How could I pass up the opportunity to take a class about Israeli Literature taught by an Israeli author who not only is well versed in the literature of his country but has an understanding of current trends and could share all this ‘insider knowledge’ with us. Israel being a small country, the literary scene is fairly intimate. If the class had a question about a story, he might just be able to contact the author and get an answer for us, and indeed on several occasions did just that. The books we read and discussions we had were pretty amazing, all the more so to read them in the kind of environment in which I read them.

Here are ten novels that I read and loved or was challenged by that will give you look inside Israeli life and culture. I wish you could have the full reading experience I did, but every book can stand on its own no matter how little or how much you know about the country because in the end a good story has at its foundation universal themes all readers can relate to no matter how different the culture.

The People of Forever are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu

The novel is actually a collection of interlinked stories with several recurring characters based on the author’s two years of mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Forces (both women and men must serve). Boianjiu began her service when she was only eighteen and the stories, written when she was 25, reflect the sorts of preoccupations any young woman has, though with a twist since the women in these stories have the added pressure of living in a country where border security is a constant worry. She often walks a line between reality and something else, and you wonder even in a fictional setting how much of the stories is real and how much fantasy. They sometimes verge on the satiric or the comic but perhaps best are the moments of the absurd where she stretches the reader’s imagination. Boianjiu was longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2013 for this first novel.

Dolly City by Orly Castel-Bloom

I must admit this was a challenging read for me, but it seems to be a must-read if you want a taste of Israeli postmodern literature. It pushed all sorts of boundaries and was fresh and new when it was first published in the early 1990s. This is a story about the anxieties of motherhood, but the narrator is not the type of mother you will recognize at first glance. It’s the sort of story that will grab you and give you a good shake. I struggled with it until it was suggested I think of it as being like punk rock music, as an outcry against the Establishment. It is thought provoking on a variety of levels and it is a book you will not feel ambivalent about.

The Hilltop by Assaf Gavron

Life in contemporary Israel seems complex, often confusing and almost always paradoxical. The things a reader might assume they know from watching the nightly news are so deftly presented by Gavron that their perception will be challenged almost without realization. A slice of life Israeli-style with its controversial settlements, history of kibbutzim, and uneasy relationship with the Palestinians fill the pages of this story, but you won’t find easy answers to Israel’s problems. Instead you’ll find a very human look at a society that seems to polarize opinion, because at the heart of this novel are the stories behind those images that flood the news. And Gavron is a very good storyteller. You think you know what is going to happen next but you find yourself going in an unexpected direction, losing yourself in the lives and stories/histories of these people, whether you agree with them or not. So often in talking about Israeli literature the word that comes to mind is ‘absurd’ and Gavron’s writing is often humorous touching on the absurd in all our lives. The Hilltop won Israel’s top literary award, The Bernstein Prize in 2013.

Second Person Singular by Sayed Kashua

There is so much I could tell you about Sayed Kashua’s Second Person Singular, but how much is enough to make you want to pick the book up for yourself and read it, but not too much to give all the best parts away? And there are lots of best parts. Kashua is an Arab-Israeli author who writes in Hebrew, and it is the complexities of Arab-Israeli life that he writes about. The story revolves around a note found in a book. The note is playful, hinting at a potentially romantic encounter with the hopes of something more. It has neither signature nor name of recipient and no date to hint at when it was written. The note happens to be found by a married man and the note was written by his wife. But not to him. Can you guess where this story is going? Maybe, but maybe not! This is a complex, tightly woven story that deals with identity and image–how we see ourselves and each other. It was recently adapted to the screen under the title A Borrowed Identity.

Suddenly a Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret

Suddenly, a Knock on the Door is made up of nearly three dozen stories, some only a page or two long that are like quick bursts of action and emotion. Keret is one of the most famous and popular authors writing in contemporary Israel today. He seems quite quirky, but funny and satirical, too. Beneath an unassuming surface, one that seems quite playful, Keret slips in some rather heavy ideas. Sometimes a little melancholic or tragic and sometimes a little absurd. You don’t realize just where you’re going until you’ve got there so painless is the journey. The stories are very much on the short side. If you let yourself you could consume them one after another like a bowl of potato chips, but to do so is to not appreciate the flavor and ends in pure gluttony.

Beaufort by Ron Leshem

The story is about a group of young Israeli soldiers in the last days of their occupation of the Beaufort fortress inside the border of Lebanon just before the country’s withdrawal in 2000. The story is narrated by Erez, a young soldier with occasional anger issues who almost by default becomes the squad commander. He’s barely older than the soldiers he leads yet they look up to him to keep them safe and alive. The men sit up on the mountain, disconnected from the rest of the world, drawing rockets and mortar shells and explosives, their lives endangered. It’s an intense state of being–like bungee jumping only to have the rope cut. A classic war story that reminded me of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, one of my all-time favorite novels. Beaufort has an equally timeless feel to it. It is both maddening and heartbreaking. All the more impressive that Leshem was not one of those soldiers, yet manages to capture the nuances of the life perfectly.

The Missing File by D.A. Mishani

Every detective has their own little quirk, have you noticed? They drink too much or they are angst-ridden, they are unemployed or are former cops (or, if they have it really rough are all of the above!). Maybe D.A. Mishani’s detective Avraham Avraham’s quirk is that he has no quirks. He is one of the more mild-mannered, regular-sort-of-guy detectives I have come across. He doesn’t even live in Tel Aviv proper but in a suburb called Holon, which sounds pretty mild, too. He is introduced in The Missing File. When he lightly brushes off the mother of a missing boy, telling her there is no real crime in Israel like in detective novels and that he will be back in the morning safe and sound, that is just the beginning of his problems. I have followed him through to his next adventure in A Possibility of Violence and eagerly await his next case.

Homesick by Eshkol Nevo

The word homesick takes on a variety of meanings in Nevo’s novel. Families are homesick for the houses they had to leave in the 1948 war, children are homesick for the siblings they’ve lost and couples for the love that seems to have faded away over time. Set in a small town not far from Jerusalem, where a young couple takes up residence in a house they share with another family. Thin walls separate the two households within a larger neighborhood made up of disparate voices. Part of the pleasure of this story is hearing the different ‘voices’ and shifting your perception slightly to get a new perspective. At first it is a little disorienting, but soon a rhythm sets in and each narrator adds a new and interesting slant to the story. How better to tell the story of a small community filled with sadness and longing? Absolutely beautifully constructed in my mind.

My Michael by Amos Oz

If you’re already acquainted with Israeli literature it may well be through the work of Amos Oz, who is probably the most famous Israeli author and for good reason. No list would be complete without one of his books, though My Michael is perhaps not his most famous. It was, however, his breakthrough novel. For me it was the perfect introduction to his writing and remains vivid in my memory. Set in Jerusalem in the 1950s, this is a portrait of a marriage. Told from the perspective of Hannah whose marriage to Michael, a very ordinary man, begins to crumble under the weight of history and her own unfulfilled passions. There is a dreamlike quality to the story and both characters are so well constructed that despite Michael’s ordinariness and Hannah’s madness you can’t help but be sympathetic towards them.

The Lover by A.B. Yehoshua

Have you ever read a novel where you thought ‘this is a story that could only happen within the pages of a book’? Of course I’m not counting the obvious choices like science fiction or dystopian novels where you know you are in an imagined world. I’m thinking of a story set firmly in the here and now (or the here and now of when the book was written) that is made up of both the realistic and the slightly fantastical. Maybe it was the intensity of the experience, but Yehoshua floored me with this novel. The story takes place against the backdrop of the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and is actually narrated by six characters, each with a very distinct and engaging voice. The lover of the title is an Israeli man who has been living abroad and returns home on the eve of the war and gets conscripted into it. He goes missing and is searched for by the husband of his married lover. It took a little time and effort to separate each ‘voice’ and keep everyone straight, but once I did, there was literally no turning back.

I’ve barely touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Israeli fiction, but these are some of the best of the best. I would happily pick up any of these novels and begin reading again and now I am always attuned to what is being published by Israeli authors. I wish I could press one of these books into your hands. I have found much to love in the literature from this part of the world and will continue to explore the fiction from this region. You are welcome to join me.

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Danielle blogs at A Work in Progress.