Turning the page on the third Jerusalem writers festival
Since it was first held, four years ago, the international biennial festival has become an extremely popular event, attracting SRO crowds to many of its sessions, which for the most part consist of little more than people sitting around talking.
If a single dominant theme could be said to emerge more from the especially diverse program of the third Jerusalem International Writers Festival, which opens this Sunday night at Mishkenot Sha’ananim and runs through Friday morning, it’s evil.
Not the melodramatic evil of witchcraft or the senseless type associated with nihilistic violence, but rather the evil encountered by morality when it confronts ideological coercion and brutality. Nazism, Marxism, radical Islam, nationalism − these are the types of movements that inhabit the tales told by many of the writers who will be appearing in Jerusalem this year. And this is fiction we’re talking about, not history or journalism.
Since it was first held, four years ago, the biennial festival has become an extremely popular event, attracting SRO crowds to many of its sessions, which for the most part consist of little more than people sitting around talking.
This year, some 45 events are scheduled (the full program can be seen online at www.writersfestival.mouse.co.il/en, where there is also a link to the agency selling tickets), and a lot of that talking will be about the weighty and troubling political issues that have characterized international politics over the past century.
The festival’s programmers, Tzila Hayun and Tal Kramer, have invited a roster of foreign and Israeli writers − some of them household names, others more rarefied pleasures − and mixed them up in a variety of different programs that range from one-on-one interviews to panel discussions and readings, to screenings of film versions of some books, as well as a handful of musical programs. The Montefiore windmill − newly renovated so that, for the first time in its 160-year history, it will be able to grind wheat (I have to admit that I always felt a certain pride living in a city with a windmill that never turned) − will offer programs for children in late afternoon and early evenings, and books by most of the participating authors will be available for sale at a special branch of Steimatzky’s. This is the place to note, with some frustration, that a number of the most tantalizing-sounding writers, including Herman Koch, Lukas Barfuss and Boualem Sansal, have not had their works published in English, though many are available in Hebrew translation. (In the case of Sansal, limited works are available in English.)
Most writers, particularly those invited from abroad, will be participating in two or three different programs. Instead of giving details about each individual session, I have tried below to describe most of the visiting authors, and noted a few of the lineups that sound especially promising.
One of them, titled “Europe and the Middle East,” will be moderated by Smadar Peri, Yedioth Ahronoth’s Arab affairs commentator. That title may be somewhat misleading, since Peri will be talking with Aleksandar Hemon, Lukas Barfuss, Boualem Sansal and, she says, an additional panelist from the Arab world, whose identity will remain a secret even during and after the session itself. The purpose of such anonymity is to protect the writer back home, where participation in an event in Israel presumably would not be looked upon kindly.
In contrast, Algerian novelist Sansal seems already to be reconciled to life as “an exile in his own country,” as he was described several years ago at a writers festival in Germany. Not only does he write in French, but his best-known work, “The German Mujahedin,” published in the U.S. in 2009 (and in the U.K. that same year, as “An Unfinished Business”), draws a clear parallel between National Socialism and radical Islam. When asked by a German interviewer in 2009 if his critique of Muslim society wasn’t overstated, he responded, “On the contrary.”
Both ideologies, he claimed, embrace “the concept of conquering − the conquering of souls, but also of territories” and “the idea of extermination, the extermination of all those who do not submit to the ideology of [in the latter case] Islamism.” Little wonder, then, that Sansal’s work is translated into Hebrew but not Arabic.
Aleksandar Hemon is the highly acclaimed Sarajevo native who found himself stranded in the U.S. while visiting there in 1992, when civil war broke out back home in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Within several years he was writing and publishing in English, and to date he has published three books, including, most recently, the novel “The Lazarus Project,” and lots of journalism. His fiction has an autobiographical component, in which he intertwines a story that sounds much like his own with that character's investigation of the senseless killing of real-life Jewish immigrant Lazarus Averbuch in turn-of-the-20th-century Chicago.
Barfuss is a successful playwright in his native Switzerland (and also internationally), but in Israel will likely be asked to talk about his novel “100 Days,” a scathingly critical look at the work of Swiss development officials in Rwanda in the run-up period to the 1994 genocidal conflict there. Neither Africans nor Europeans come out looking good in the book, but the author’s sharpest criticism is reserved for his fellow Swiss, who, having convinced themselves they were doing good, contributed a lot to the conditions that made civil war inevitable.
Hypocrisy, albeit on the personal and individual level, is also the territory of Dutch writer Herman Koch, whose best-known works, “The Dinner” and “Summerhouse with Swimming Pool,” both look at the violence and vindictiveness of which even the most respectable citizens are capable. The acts he depicts are all the more devastating because of the genteel and civilized backdrops against which they occur. Koch will appear in conversation with popular Hebrew novelist Eshkol Nevo.
Fans of thrillers (Admit it: That’s most of us) will want to attend a session led by Israeli crime writer (and former editor of the Haaretz Hebrew Books supplement) Dror Mishani, speaking with Britain’s Tom Rob Smith and Norway’s Jo Nesbo. Smith, who’s all of 33, is the author of a trilogy centered around Leo Demidov, who begins the series as a fiercely loyal agent of the Soviet secret police under Stalin, but gradually comes to acknowledge that the regime he works for has one goal alone: to perpetuate its own power, something best done by inspiring fear and mistrust in every member of society. The first entry in the series, “Child 44,” is a mega-best-seller that was long-listed for the Man Booker prize, and its successors, “The Secret Speech” and “Agent 6,” which bring Demidov up to the 1980s, have been similarly successful.
Nesbo’s best-known series features detective Harry Hole, lots of graphic violence, and sophisticated treatment of such issues as racism and Norway’s behavior during World War II.
Moderator Mishani (who himself is now writing his second crime thriller, with the same detective, Avraham Avraham) told me that he’s bursting with questions about suspense writing he plans to discuss with Smith and Nesbo − for example, their speculation about why it crosses borders so successfully, and why it is one of the few genres that invites its authors to return in successive books to the same hero.
He wonders “what the audiences’ expectations are” with such series. “You go into a store and you ask for the third Jo Nesbo. But do you expect something new, or do you want the same thing? It’s a dialectic between new and familiar.” He’s also curious to know how Smith and Nesbo decided to include so much politics in their books. “Crime writing used to be thought of mainly as entertainment, but both these guys deal dramatically with political and ideological questions − Nesbo, for example, with the Nazi past of Norway. I want to know why they think this is a good vehicle.” If you wonder the same things, you might want to attend that session.
‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’
Not all the visiting authors will be men, but the female visiting writers make for a more variegated and less politicized group. Best known is Tracy Chevalier, a U.S. native and longtime resident of the United Kingdom. Chevalier’s novels, most famously “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” as well as the more recent “Burning Bright” and “Remarkable Creatures,” always include a heavy injection of history and romance. In addition to participating in a conversation with historical novelist Yochi Brandes and historian and writer Aviad Kleinberg, and speaking at a screening of the film version of “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” Chevalier will also read from her work at a session with Tom Rob Smith, Claudia Pineiro and Solveig Eggerz.
Pineiro is the Argentinean author of several popular novels with crime themes, though not strictly genre literature.
Dealing as she does with the upper classes in Argentine society and their hypocrisies, if not outright criminal acts, she sounds like she might have a lot in common with Herman Koch, though the two social critics have not been paired in a festival event. Whereas “Thursday Night Widows” peers into life within a gated community outside Buenos Aires at a time when the country at large is descending into its worst economic crisis ever, the novel “Elena Knows” imagines an elderly and infirmed woman taking on the difficult task of proving that her late daughter did not commit suicide.
Solveig Eggerz is a native of Iceland, though she was raised as a diplomat’s daughter, and has lived much of her life in the United States. A longtime journalist, Eggerz’s lone novel, “Seal Woman,” is based on the real-life decision by 314 German women to respond to an ad looking for people to come to Iceland and work on farms in the economically difficult years after the end of World War II. Charlotte, who lost her Jewish husband and child during the Holocaust, tries to start a new life in Iceland, but finds herself haunted by memories and longings for home, all while she contends with the physical and emotional challenges of living in a country whose language she does not know and whose people have little interest in her history.
Eggerz will appear together with Hebrew novelist Zeruya Shalev in a session to be moderated by journalist and biographer Eilat Negev. Talking with me about what she anticipates at the meeting, Negev said that, ostensibly, the two women’s writing is very different. In Shalev’s five novels to date, for example, “the political situation and historical background don’t have a great deal of importance,” said Negev. “Rather, Shalev focuses on the person-to-person relationship − or estrangement − of a husband and wife. Often, she writes about a situation she was in, whether it’s love, remarriage of even adoption. Eggerz is writing about something she herself has not been through.”
Yet on another level, said Negev, “I found there is something similar about their approach to their female protagonists, something brutal, unforgiving and probing. They are not nice toward them, they show all the blood and guts.”
Another writer who seems to be in her own class is Aimee Bender, author, most recently, of “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake,” about a girl, Rose, who can taste the emotions of people in the food they cook. Like her earlier work, a novel and two books of short stories, the 2010 book has a surreal element, which probably explains why she will be appearing in Jerusalem in conversation with Etgar Keret, the master of the quirky − if not downright bizarre − short short story.
Bender, who teaches writing at the University of Southern California, will also meet over dinner at the Tmol Shilshom bookstore-cafe with writer-chef Gil Hovav.
A Tuesday evening panel discussion with “writers of Generation X” can’t help but be funny and enjoyable, featuring as it does Keret and Sayed Kashua, from these parts, and Gary Shteyngart and Arnon Grunberg. Shteyngart, of course, is the highly successful Russian-born novelist who has been living in New York since his teenage years, and whose novels include “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” and “Super Sad True Love Story.” The latter, published two years ago, is a dystopic satire that mocks just about every element of contemporary society, most prominently people’s dependence on such personal technology as smartphones, and their incessant need to rank and label everything.
For his near-future United States, mired in debt that may be beyond the point of no return, it’s “zero hour for our economy, zero hour for our military might, zero hour for everything that used to make us proud to be ourselves,” according to one of Shteyngart’s characters. (Shteyngart will also appear one-on-one with Etgar Keret on Monday evening.)
Grunberg, whose name may be less familiar, is Dutch-born, though he too is now a resident of New York. He is a highly prolific writer of novels and journalism who holds the distinction in his homeland of having won the same prize for debut fiction for two different novels − the first having been published under a pseudonym. A look at his website reveals that he has also loaned his name to a line of Spanish wines, which he has labeled “Freud,” “Marx” and “Schopenhauer.”
I haven’t focused here on the Israeli writers who will be participating in next week’s event, which will transpire from its familiar perch overlooking the Hinnom Valley and the Old City, but they will include all the names you would expect, as well as a number of less obvious but equally tantalizing talents. Amos Oz and David Grossman will speak in separate sessions with journalist Bilha Ben-Eliyahu, both with musical accompaniment. Each of the visiting foreign authors will participate in a one-on-one meeting with an Israeli peer: Boualem Sansal with A.B. Yehoshua, Arnon Grunberg with Amir Gutfreund, Aleksandar Hemon with Sayed Kashua, Jo Nesbo with Gadi Taub, and Tom Rob Smith with Nir Baram, to mention but a few.
Tickets for programs with some of the lesser-known writers are more likely to be available at the last minute, and, because of the unexpected nature, may well be the events that will stay with you long after the final page of the festival has been turned.
David B. Green is editor of Haaretz Books.