A Leviathan at Azrieli

Is Hagar Yanai's book of fantasy nothing but a manifesto against drugs like Prozac and Ritalin?

Hamayim shebeyn ha'olamot(The Water Between the Worlds): Book II of the "Whale of Babylon" trilogy, by Hagar Yanai Keter Books (Hebrew) 317 pages, NIS 79

It must be acknowledged: A duel like this could take its place among the best battles in the fantasy world. On one side, Ella Margolis, an Israeli girl who until not long ago pretended to be Allas, a guy's guy, the deputy to the commander of the rebels in the Babylonian Empire, Hillel ben Shahar; across enemy lines, the king of the Free Demons, Hombaba, a particularly despicable demon who has a digestive system for a face. They throw the die. Hombaba bets the demons that he will put at the disposal of Hillel's army, which is facing the Babylonian army in a fateful battle. Ella bets the possibilities that are inherent in her future, and loses them one after the other. She keeps raising the stakes, though, until she comes close to the point where she will have no future at all and her not especially attractive present will become her future forever.

When Batya Gur published "The Saturday Morning Murder" (Keter, 1988; HarperCollins, 1993), she proved it was possible to write a thriller in Hebrew that is based in Jerusalem. Hagar Yanai is doing something similar for fantasy literature with "The Whale of Babylon" trilogy, whose second volume, "The Water Between the Worlds," has just been published. In 2002, Yanai wrote in Haaretz that "in contrast to terror, there is no local production in the fantasy industry in Israel. Fairies don't dance under the drooping branches of the palm tree, there are no fire-breathing dragons in the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Harry Potter doesn't live in Kfar Sava. Why not, come to think of it?"

Now Yanai has shown that it is indeed possible to write Israeli fantasy fiction. She has had great success in creating a fantasy world based on Middle Eastern mythology and has even succeeded in situating one of its entrances at Opera Square in south Tel Aviv. Her characters pass between, or are possibly sucked into, other worlds through water cisterns, bathtubs, puddles, fountains and even a wine barrel. Truth be told -- this is precisely what happens to the reader.


In the trilogy's first entry, "The Whale of Babylon," we were introduced to the despotic empire that rules Babylon, one that enslaves its inhabitants by prohibiting them from being sad, and sending to a re-education camp or even killing anyone who is suspected of depression. The empire is threatened by Hillel ben Shahar's army of rebels, as well as by a new force -- the Whale -- which is liable to leap out of the water between the worlds.

The family of noted scientist Emanuel Margolis, who works on psychotropic drugs in the world we know, finds itself thrust into this world. Margolis himself is attacked at his home by elements from the universe of Babylon, who steal from him the first samples of a new drug he has created, one that can cure every type of depression.

In pursuit of the missing medication, Margolis' 15-year-old daughter, Ella, joins Ben Shahar's rebel army. However, as ancient prophecy says that a woman will bring disaster down upon Hillel, his followers will not allow him to see women. Thus Ella disguises herself as a man and becomes charismatic Hillel's best friend. During the course of book II, Ella sets out to enlist reinforcements to save his army. Before doing so, she asks a friendly demoness to prepare a potion for her that will truly transform her into a male. Not that she will drink this potion in the end -- but sex change and the right to choose a gender are taboo even in the fantasy genre. Even consideration of the possibility is an exceptional event that must not be taken lightly. In Babylon, Yonatan, Ella's younger brother, is studying how to separate people from their shadows, and thus free them from their depressions. He falls in love with Nino, the imperial heiress apparent. In the second book, he discovers he has become addicted to the consumption of shadows, and that he cannot manage without his daily fix. In the end, he finds himself on an aircraft carrier belonging to his greatest enemy, Achav Gutenberg, of the Empire of Byzantium.

What's the connection between the Margolises and Babylon? As is common in such cases, everything was foretold by an ancient prophecy: "Two half-breeds blood of Man / Great magic shall know them / An abyss shall rise, Hillel shall fall / The darkness shall reign forever." Despite the great evil, this is not a war between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, which is what we usually encounter in fantasy books. Not that there is no threat to the universe, and even several universes, but rather that until now, two-thirds of the way through the trilogy, it isn't clear who is fighting whom and what the role of the abyss between the two worlds is in the overall story. It is also not entirely clear what the danger is that is hovering over the two universes.

What is clear to readers is whose side they are on, even if they don't have a clue as to whose behalf those characters are ultimately acting on. As far as we know, it could be that Nasradur, the dark priest, is really operating in the name of the forces of good. Ella enlists a gang of thugs, who burst into the office of Marmelstein, the Whale's lawyer, where they discover a cache of ancient contracts in which people bequeath the divine part of themselves to the devil. But who the hell is the devil here?

If there is one devil we do know about from Yanai's books, it is psychiatry. "The Whale of Babylon" is the story of a princess who during the course of the book is taking a pill that has been stolen from Earth, whose aim is to improve her mood and cut her off from her feelings. Is the whole book just a manifesto against personality-altering medications like Prozac and Ritalin?

In the second book, Yanai describes the anti-depression camps, a kind of Babylonian version of psychiatric hospitals. There, people are hooked up to an apparatus that causes pain if they are not smiling, and orderlies force them to eat sweets. Anyone who still dares to be sad is thrown into the abyss that sucks in souls. The view that is hostile to psychiatry is also expressed by the demon Pozozo, Yonatan's friend, who addresses the moon: "Moon, can you hear me up there? Everyone needs someone who will listen to him. Yonatan says that in his world people pay money to other people so that they will listen to them. What a ridiculous idea!"

But just as the Narnia books are a wonderful series, in spite of their being a Christian missionary manifesto, one can definitely read the "Whale of Babylon" books with enjoyment and still believe that psychiatric medications or even psychoanalysis can help many people. Altogether, in certain respects, it is possible to view the parallel worlds of Babylon as a Middle Eastern equivalent of the parallel universes of Narnia. It's just that in the Babylonian universes the readers are spared the somewhat burdensome need for salvation by means of the lion, which is the Narnian version of Jesus.

The 'trust me' method

For the Israeli reader there is something very refreshing in the visits that Yanai's characters, among them the smelly four-winged demon Pozozo, make to Tel Aviv. "The Whale of Babylon" had a lot of patriotic charm: In one scene a scientist riding a motorcycle chases Yonatan, Pozozo and Yonatan's mother, who has just been rescued from a gigantic test tube, straight into the Azrieli Mall and the Hashalom railway station. Now, in the second volume, the family takes refuge from its pursuers in the old Tel Aviv bus station, where Pozozo works as a cook and pretends to be a foreign worker. No one seems to find anything odd about a foreign worker with wings.

Precisely because Yanai's books are a great pleasure, her tendency to rely on coincidence is a source of disappointment. In both "Whale of Babylon" volumes, doors open a lot just at the moment the fleeing characters arrive at a dead end. This should not happen. From the reader's perspective, it is as though they have been cheated in a game of dice.

The main incident that closes "The Water between the Worlds" is dependent entirely on a letter that is put into a bottle on one side of the world and has reached its recipient on the other side. To this, one can only respond by saying: Nu, really.

For purposes of comparison, it is worth remembering the lengthy preparation Tolkien gives the reader before he brings the Wizard Gandolf back to life. Yanai, however, works according to the "trust me" method. In her defense, it can be said perhaps that the universe in which we live was also apparently created by the same method. But we expect more of fictional worlds.

Shahar Ilan is a reporter for Haaretz.

Haaretz Books Supplement, August 2008