Assaf Gavron
Assaf Gavron. Photo by Moti Kikayon
Text size

Almost Dead (Tanin Pigua ) by Assaf Gavron (translated from the Hebrew by Assaf Gavron and James Lever ) Harper Perennial, 328 pages, $15 (paperback)

 

Sure, there are at least two sides to every conflict, but what are they? In "Almost Dead," the first (and so far, only ) of Assaf Gavron's four novels to be translated into English, the answer is pretty much what you'd expect from an Israeli writing lighthearted fiction about terrorism and creating alternating first-person narrators to represent each of those two sides. His Us and Them are the usual suspects in Holy Land strife: Israelis and Palestinians, Arabs and Jews, victims and aggressors in their shifting incarnations.

But that's only if you limit your search to the story that unfolds between the covers. Because Gavron's novel, which takes place during the height of the second intifada, also brings out another Us and Them, whose responses to the novel tell us something fundamental about it. To judge by the way this book has been received around the world, it appears that the people whom "Almost Dead" pits against each other differ not so much in their ethnic origin or religious affiliation as in their place of residence.

Do they live Here, where a seemingly trivial choice between riding to work on a Tel Aviv city bus and taking the minibus-sized shared cab that follows the same route can be fraught with life-and-death implications - as is the case for Eitan "Croc" Enoch, the book's breezy and cynical Israeli protagonist? Or do they live There, where the bombing of the minibus that Croc calls the Little No. 5, the first of three terror attacks he survives, might well have been a mere blip on the nightly news?

Though Gavron wouldn't provide sales figures for his book, he said in a conversation with Haaretz that the original Hebrew version of the book, published here in 2006, sold only a third as well as his previous novel - the bestselling "Moving," about three Israelis working for a moving company in New York. It also generated some unflattering comments from Israeli book critics, like the conclusion by Yedioth Ahronoth reviewer Maya Feldman that it was "just not good enough." Feldman felt that everything that happens to Croc (aside from surviving three terror attacks ) "seems like it was drawn directly from the life of my upstairs neighbor. Or my downstairs one. Or my neighbor from across the hall. And believe me, it's no coincidence that I ignore them on the stairs."

Yet, Gavron said that what was his poorest-selling book at home has become his best-selling book abroad. "Almost Dead" has been translated into German, Italian and Dutch as well as English, with a French edition due out next year. It has been shortlisted for a Jewish literary prize in Italy and received good press abroad; L.A. Times book editor David L. Ulin considered it to be "brilliant," and the review in Canada's Globe and Mail said it painted "a vivid picture of the most insoluble conflict of our time with a master's hand."

Gavron's real genius?

The fact that Gavron provides a Palestinian perspective as well as an Israeli one seems to be the aspect of the book that most endears it to at least some non-Israeli readers (Ulin called it "Gavron's real genius" ). And there are indeed some well-rendered scenes that offer a window onto the development of Palestinian anger and acrimony, like this one: "Sometimes the window frames would begin to shudder, then the floor would start, then you'd feel it in your body, and only then would you hear it: a bulldozer approaching."

That sentence is part of the narrative told from the perspective of Fahmi Sabih, a Palestinian from the West Bank village of Murair who is directly involved in the terror attacks that very nearly kill Croc. The chapters alternate between the story of Croc, whose job at a company that works to shorten the length of directory assistance calls requires an obsession with making every second count, and that of Fahmi, whose 20-kilometer trip from the Al-Amari refugee camp to his home village, through Israeli military checkpoints by car and on foot, takes four hours - even though it took his grandfather only an hour on horseback ("Where in the world does it take longer to get from place to place as the years go by?" ).

I had expected the Palestinian storyline to compel me to ponder the perennial question of whether it is fair to charge (as many do ) that merely conveying the bad guy's point of view necessarily gives rise to a "moral equivalence" that depicts bombers and bombed as equally victimized. But what I mostly felt when reading the Fahmi chapters was a sense of irritation that the meat of his story - his flashbacks - kept getting interrupted by the present-day comments of Svetlana, the nurse who is caring for him as he lies comatose in an Israeli hospital, capable of reliving his memories and understanding what is going on around him but unable to communicate with the outside world.

The disconcertingly disjointed nature of Fahmi's tale, which becomes more coherent - and more interesting - only toward the end of the book, as his storyline begins to merge with Croc's own fast-paced, linear narrative, can be glimpsed in this excerpt (as in the original, the italics represent Svetlana's comments ):

"I'm floating in the sea. I can see the shore but I can't reach it. The tide keeps me away. I see Bilahl on the beach.

"'Here. That's better. Come on now.'

"I'm not here, I am .... where was I before she came to disturb me?

"'And visitors in the afternoon! So who's coming to visit you? Who's he going to be? Or she?'"

This constant back-and-forth can be quite distracting as a storytelling device, and weakens the narrative power of Fahmi's tale. Perhaps partly as a result, the Palestinian issue didn't merit much of a mention by Israeli reviewers - though it's impossible to know for sure whether, as Gavron said he suspects, the first-person portrayal of a Palestinian character, which he pointed out "usually makes the reader closer and feel more empathy toward him," was nonetheless a factor behind the book's lukewarm reception in Israel.

For all that most Israelis have not witnessed refugee camp life firsthand, we have become so used to hearing stories about demolitions and roadblocks that they feel recognizable enough to forestall a sense of revelation. Or maybe it's just that these images, like the characters who inhabit them, don't offer enough untrodden terrain to compensate for the intimate familiarity of Gavron's representation of the Israeli side - which to a large extent feels like the conversation you've had, or overheard, a hundred times.

The Croc-narrated section of "Almost Dead" offers telling and accurate descriptions of the little social quirks, the kind of pigua subculture that is the unintended byproduct of the intifada-era rash of terror attacks. Take the casual "I'm still alive" phone message that Croc leaves for his girlfriend Duchi after the Little No. 5 blows up: "Hi. I wasn't killed in the suicide attack in case you're interested. I'm in Brussels next week. Bye."

And here's Croc talking about the day after the attack on his usual mode of transportation: "In the morning she made me swear to take a taxi, though I've yet to hear of two bomb attacks happening in exactly the same place on following days. Somehow, despite this clear and logical statistical data, people are convinced that the terrorists tell themselves: 'Ahmed, hey, it worked, let's try again tomorrow in exactly the same place since there are bound to be loads of people there and no security.'"

Doomsday thoughts

In fact, Gavron's evocation of the height of the second intifada was authentic enough that even though there hasn't been a suicide bombing since 2008 (and the pace of attacks had leveled off several years before ), while I was reading the book I found myself starting to slip back into that decision-making mode that is constantly burdened by niggling back-of-the-mind doomsday thoughts, especially if you're living in Jerusalem, as I was at the time (Is it irresponsible to go to such a public place? Or would it be worse not to go because that would be giving in to the terrorists? And a question I wasn't asking then: To what extent should that calculus change now that I have kids? )

I can certainly see the appeal of such true-to-life minutiae as the post-bombing phone messages and the bus-taking angst for those who are learning about it for the first time, but while Gavron's realism may gain the book foreign readers, he cites it as one reason Israelis may not be buying it in droves. In a comment that resonated with my own experience, Gavron told me: "It's not a time that Israelis enjoyed very much, and I don't think they enjoyed going back to it in fiction."

Of course, there is something to be said for reading a work that gives voice to a communal experience in which you took part, for wanting to see something familiar get resurrected on the page. And if that's what you're looking for, I recommend reading this book.

But it's worth noting that while "Almost Dead" is good at setting the scene, it doesn't quite transcend it. It stands on its own as a novel, in the traditional narrative sense that both its main characters go through a crisis of some sort and come out changed. But to my mind at least, it doesn't really offer a new way of looking at the intifada, or terrorism, or the Middle East, and neither its language nor any themes or messages it might contain suffice to truly take Israeli readers somewhere they haven't been before. Ultimately, it seems that the pivotal reason for the disparity in reactions to the book is that its strength - its accessible, colloquial descriptions of what it's like for Israelis to live with the constant specter of the next explosion and what it's like for Palestinians to live with the constant reminder of Israeli control over their daily lives - seems to appeal most to those who have not regularly encountered such scenarios, and for whom the very existence of a single work encompassing both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives constitutes grounds for profuse literary praise. But maybe all this bodes well for the future of "Almost Dead." If peace ever does break out, perhaps the thirst for a portrayal of two genuinely foreign worlds, a hankering that has already been engendered in other countries by the distance of space, will one day be replicated in a terror-less Israel too, engendered by the distance of time. Shoshana Kordova is an editor at Haaretz English Edition.

'Because of the bombs'

The parents of Eitan "Croc" Enoch, the Israeli narrator of "Almost Dead," aren't major characters in the book, but to their fellow English-speaking immigrants reading Assaf Gavron's novel, they might be the most familiar.

Croc's mother, Leah/Lili, is an English teacher from Denver, and his father, Yochanan/Jonny, is a dreamer from Maryland who dismally fails in his mission to import peanut butter to Israel. Unlike Croc's parents, Gavron's are from England; his father, Daniel, a journalist who used to work for The Jerusalem Post and Israel Radio's English service, is from London and his mother, Angela, a retired teacher for the blind, is from Leeds.

Both Croc and Gavron have siblings who have left Israel. In the book, Croc's brother lives in Maryland with his family "because of the bombs," and his sister wants to go too.

"They'd come to this hole in the desert to give themselves and their children an identity and a good life, and in return all they'd got was destruction," Croc tells us. "When I see them now, it's as if every bomb blows another brick out of the wall of the decision to emigrate. Their mistake. They can't blame us for running away, but their hearts are breaking."

In real life, Gavron, who is 41 and whose parents live in the same house in the Jerusalem suburb of Motza Ilit where he grew up, has a brother who lived in the United States 20 years ago (but has since been living in the Galilee) and a sister in England. The author himself lived in London for 10 years (during two separate periods ) and is currently living for the year in Berlin with his wife, 3-year-old daughter and infant, as part of a writing fellowship that Gavron said he won primarily on the basis of "Almost Dead."

The biographical overlap, which contributed to Gavron's decision to dedicate the book to his parents (a minimalist "For Mum and Dad" ), reflects an empathy for English-speaking immigrants of his parents' generation whose Israeli-raised children sometimes end up essentially reversing the Zionist dream. "It's a small part of the book, but it is their reality and my reality," said Gavron.

England's 'CrocAttack!'

Assaf Gavron wasn't planning on translating his own book into English.

But he needed an English sample translation as a basis for selling "Almost Dead" (called "CrocAttack!" in the British edition ) to foreign publishers, so Gavron did it himself (with some help from his father ), not thinking it would ever see print. A publisher liked it and asked if he wanted to do the whole book.

There's also a second person credited with translating the book, but British author James Lever, who was long-listed for the Booker Prize for his 2000 debut novel "Me Cheeta," doesn't actually understand Hebrew, Gavron said; Lever essentially edited the translation.

Though this was Gavron's first foray into rendering Hebrew text into English - until now he didn't have enough confidence in his English skills - he isn't new to translating. He has translated into Hebrew the work of such prominent American authors as J.D. Salinger ("Nine Stories" ) and Philip Roth ("Portnoy's Complaint"), as well as "Everything is Illuminated" and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," both by Jonathan Safran Foer, whom Gavron has since met ("I gave him a copy of my book, but I don't know if he read it" ).

Gavron's next project is a novel about an illegal West Bank outpost, which he's writing "as kind of a comedy because it's full of absurd situations and crazy moments," and which he expects to publish in Hebrew in about a year.

S.K.