Hit the girls and make them cry
The Israeli reality Michal Pitowsky portrays in her first novel is of schools where violence is the norm, adults are conspicuously absent, and the child who complains is the one with a problem
Asphalt, by Michal Pitowsky. Keter (Hebrew),
309 pages, NIS 96
What remains with us from our school days? It’s tempting to recall them as carefree, but that may well just be when they’re viewed through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. The gap between the reality of the sometimes difficult years of middle and high school and our memories of those years is the issue Michal Pitowsky tackles in her first novel, “Asphalt.” Pitowsky insists on removing the veil from our eyes and looking directly at the rough edges that lie between childhood and adolescence and the physical violence that pervades Israeli schools. She sees not romance or innocence, but primarily sheer terror.
Ofri is a sixth-grader in Jerusalem in the early 1990s, and she passes her days in fear. Her classmates pose a constant danger to her. The boys beat her up, and once even threw her from a moving bus; the boy in the next seat over attempts to choke her and on another occasion brandishes a knife in the middle of a lesson. These scenes initially make the book seem like an Israeli counterpart to William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” but the comparison quickly fades. Pitowsky’s book is not an allegory about a band of children whose nightmarish behavior is played out on an island far from the adult world. This is simply a regular Israeli school with regular teachers and parents, and the violence is as ordinary as it is extreme. Nearly everyone who has been through the education system here is intimately familiar with this reality, or at least with the concept of school as a dangerous place.
Ofri is not the only victim of violence in this book, and the amorphousness of her character strengthens the feeling that she could be any girl in any school.
A second major character is Moran, a 15-year-old misfit. She hangs around the Jerusalem Cinematheque and the capital’s Zion Square, where she meets Dov, a strange and handsome boy who is four years her senior and full of himself. Unlike the boys in Ofri’s class, Dov represents a quiet violence of the elite, violence disguised as intimacy. Moran and Dov enter into an aggressive, manipulative relationship in which Dov’s charming exoticism covers up the abuse he subjects her to. In her confused, romance-addled way, Moran, like Ofri, falls victim to her environment.
‘They’re not bad people’
“Asphalt” is, first of all, a book about isolation. It hones in on the feeling of being a loner and of being unable to speak the language others speak: that is, the language of violence. Shani, Ofri’s best friend, tries in vain to teach her to understand this language: “I don’t understand you. The only thing you care about is whether the boys hit you or not. ... They’re not bad people if they hit you. They’re just trying to impress each other. They do it because they don’t have any confidence.” Shani ends with the declaration: “You’re making a big deal out of nothing. You aren’t supposed to do anything. Boys are dumb. That’s life.”
This seems funny at first, but not very convincing later on. Moran lives according to this rule, too, and it may be supposed that the adults on the periphery of these characters’ lives do as well. Another justification for violence, which Ofri hears from her grandmother, is that boys hit girls because they have crushes on them and this is how they express their feelings. It may satisfy Grandma, but it sure doesn’t help Ofri.
The question that arises when reading − “Where are the grown-ups?” − is certainly appropriate, but also disingenuous. As Pitowsky shows, many times the adults misinterpret what they see, or they simply don’t see anything. In addition, the complexity of adolescence creates a vicious cycle: The daily suffering and difficulties of these years, along with their own sugarcoated memories of the period, seem to strengthen the tendency of adults to avert their gaze, on the one hand, or regard them as necessary. This puts the grown-ups on the other side of the barricades. Many kids reject completely the possibility of filling in an adult on what is going on in their lives. In the absence of adult supervision and tactics for responding to violence appropriately, these young people feel they have no choice but to quietly endure their punishment.
Pitowsky doesn’t make do with shocking her readers. Through her characters, she demonstrates the causes of terror among children, and its social and cultural implications. “Asphalt’s” relevance is particularly significant at a time when violence and attacks on the weaker members of the population have become routine, when the victims are blamed for causing the problem. The book reveals a paradox: The burden of proof is with the victim, who ends up being considered the aggressor. Pitowsky does a good job of showing that perpetrators of violence can be from different social and economic backgrounds, emphasizing its universality and illustrating why so many people excuse at least some degree of violence as just a normal part of everyday life.
“Asphalt” is an impressive first book. Michal Pitowsky’s writing may not yet be fully developed, but it is precisely this quality that is the source of her courage to tell things as they are. Ofri and Moran are young girls trapped in situations too difficult for people of their ages − or of any age really. The author’s authentic, direct tone becomes inextricable from the book’s painful baggage by giving these girls a voice and shattering the illusion of innocent childhood that is etched in our memories.
Inbal Malka is a book critic and an editor. Her first novel will be published in 2013 by Zmora-Bitan.