Never-never Land

In a country like Israel, where incredible things are always happening, why is the genre of fantasy literature virtually nonexistent?

Hagar Yanai
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Hagar Yanai

The hottest thing today, right after global terror, is fantasy. You finally managed to get tickets to see "Harry Potter" (seen in its first three weeks here by a record-breaking half-million Israelis), and now the first film in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is already in the theaters. The books on which these films are based have sold around 100 million copies each, worldwide. "Lord of the Rings," considered the ultimate and most influential fantasy classic, achieved this nearly 50 years after the first edition came out in 1954. "Harry Potter," the literary merits of which have been subject to debate but which is treated with affection by all, has done it over the last five years. We're talking here about a total, global sweep.

Unlike terror, however, there's no home-grown production in the realm of fantasy in Israel. Fairies don't dance under our date palms, dragons don't breathe fire at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and Harry Potter doesn't live in Kfar Sava. But why not? Why couldn't "Harry Potter" have been written in Israel? Why is local fantasy literature so thin, to the point where a book like that almost can't be published in the Jewish state?

Israelis actually consume a fair amount of fantasy. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" (published in Hebrew by Zmora Bitan) together have sold around 90,000 copies since first translated in the 1970s. A total of about half-a-million copies of the four Harry Potter books, which came out beginning in December 2000, has been sold, according to publisher Yedioth Ahronoth. Aficionados of the genre prefer to read works in translation. Apparently, the Israeli Tolkien has yet to be born.

Prof. Yigal Schwartz, head of the Center for the Study of Jewish and Israeli Literature and Culture at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, admits that for him, this is a personal misfortune. "There is no Israeli fantasy, and I think it's one of the biggest weaknesses of Hebrew literature," he says. "It's a very intelligent genre that relates to both the imagination and the intellect, and you need a very broad capacity for detail in order to keep everything straight, like playing chess at an advanced level.

"Not only is there no fantasy literature in Israel, such books as have been written have not received much attention from the public. For example, there was an immigrant author from the Third Aliyah [wave of immigration to pre-state Israel, 1919-1923) named Yitzhak Oren who wrote fantasy, and won no recognition at all."

How, if at all, is fantasy manifest in Israeli literature?

Schwartz: "Through Holocaust literature, actually. In David Grossman's writing, there are elements of fantasy. Meir Shalev uses fantasy tied to myths from classical Jewish texts and has somehow melded Zionist myths with ancient ones. Etgar Keret definitely plays with fantasy, mainly in the style of Kurt Vonnegut, and in Orly Castel-Bloom, it appears in the development of female anxieties. But one cannot talk of it in the sense of alternative worlds. We're a bit limited. A bit like a common garden worm.

"It really kills me. How can it be that an entire literature takes no interest in questions of great concern to modern writing and film, like the connection between human beings and clones, a human and a copy? We do have our own `other,' the Arab, the woman, but not the other on the level of the androids from `Blade Runner.'"

Stigma from the start

Evidently, being an author of Hebrew fantasy is not easy. Michal Kertis-Perez, who is among the few to have come out with a work of fantasy in Israel, was frankly amazed by the response. Her book "Ha'aretz Shemitahat Leshlulit" [not translated into English; roughly, "The Land Beneath the Puddle"], influenced by British author C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia," was published by Lilach in 1989. Its protagonists are two children who jump into a puddle and on into an imaginary land. The endless rounds of publishers made by Kertis-Perez's manuscript bolsters the sense that home-grown fantasy bears a stigma.

She relates how the large publishers like Keter, Am Oved and Modan rejected it: "I had no problem with someone's telling me that it wasn't good enough and that I had to work another few years to improve my writing. But the responses I got from publishers were ambiguous. Someone told me that this isn't a field in which they're interested in publishing books at the moment."

Finally, her manuscript was accepted at Lilach, a small press. After its publication, it was completely ignored by the critics: "I sent the book to critics at various newspapers, like Kolbo in Haifa, but got no response. I hope the book is of good quality, but there's no one to say. No one paid it any attention. In the end, I think a few hundred copies of the book were sold."

Asked if she were disappointed by the lack of response, the author says: "I sort of expected it. Fantasy here has always been something in translation and not something original. When someone had already proved himself abroad, a translation would be done. I've accepted the situation, and I'm not angry about it."

"There's a stigma to begin with against original Israeli fantasy and science fiction literature," says Eli Eshed, whose book "From Tarzan to Zbeng," a survey of nonstandard Hebrew literature since the British Mandate, is about to be published by Bavel. "It's like people here preferring foreign films over Israeli films. They assume that the original stuff will be terrible, awful. Michal Kertis-Perez's books may not be highbrow creations, but they're also no worse than a lot of translated works, yet I can't recall that anyone has written more than a few lines about them."

Authors who are better-known than Kertis-Perez also have problems publishing works of fantasy, apparently. Nurit Zarchi is one of the few who have succeeded - and even she reports problems.

"Our inner reality is imaginary, and fantasy is important in my writing," she says. "My last book with Am Oved, `With a Mermaid' (`Eem Bat-yam'), is about a man who finds a mermaid in his house, sitting on a chair in the living room. I wrote a book called `Antennae' (`Meshoshim'), about a girl who starts reading people's minds, and `Alligator' (`Tenina') is about a witch. I've also written fantasy tales for adults, like `The Mask Artist' (`Aman Hamasechot'), published by Zmora Bitan, and `A Car Like an Orchid' (`Mechonit Kmo Sahlav'), by Yedioth Ahronoth."

Asked how she managed to do something that so many others have failed to do, Zarchi answers: "I don't know. I just did. The truth is, the publishers really didn't like it and asked whether I don't by any chance have something realistic to publish. That's happened with all my books."

Sci-fi in the closet

Like their colleagues who write fantasy, Israeli authors of science fiction don't have an easy time of it. Psychiatrist Hamutal Shabtai, daughter of prominent author Yaakov Shabtai, is one of these. Her book "2020," published by Keter in 1997, is in her words "a futuristic novel dealing with an altered world threatened with an AIDS-like illness which has created, in response, isolation-quarantine camps for the sick, and sex robots, and people look for some way to love in the midst of all this confusion." Shabtai experienced one of the typical maneuvers of Israeli publishers who get nervous when they're about to release a work of science fiction.

"The fact that this was science fiction was really downplayed," she says. "They treated this aspect of the book with discretion in all the advertising and PR, and at the time, the reason for this wasn't clear to me. I don't see that there's anything to hide here. It's the only way I'm interested in writing."

Did it make you angry?

"Let's say it saddens me. It's unfortunate that in Israel, the science-fiction genre is considered a literary stepchild. The people I know find it interesting, but most people don't consider it to be real literature."

Will you be brave enough to publish another sci-fi book?

"Yes. This baptism by fire, which wasn't such a great success, has toughened me. I won't write a book solely so that it will sell well. But I'm not sure that there'll be a publisher willing to publish the next book, because this one wasn't a very impressive success commercially."

In contrast to Shabtai's militant stance, there are authors who confess that the total lack of encouragement for the genre changed the direction of their writing. David Melamed is the icon of sci-fi devotees here, thanks to his "Hyena in Korundi" ("Tzavoa Bakorundi"), a collection of futuristic short stories that was published in the 1980s by Tammuz. Thereafter Melamed continued to publish books, but they tended to be more standard literary works. He says that his decision to write less science fiction has to do with the responses he received.

"I had the sense that both publishers and critics view translated works of science fiction and futurism more favorably, and are less encouraging toward Hebrew sci-fi - not just in terms of my own book but toward others, too. There were others who began writing and somehow didn't continue."

And there are those who put the cure before the disease. A few Israelis decided ahead of time to write in English. One of them is Rehavia Berman, a translator with Opus Press, who explains reasonably: "I'm working on a first novel, a historical fantasy about Agrippas. I'm writing in English for financial reasons. I want a bigger audience. The Hebrew readership is limited, and since I can write in English at the mother-tongue level, there's no reason why I shouldn't write the book in English and try to sell it to a publisher in the U.S. or England."

Potential Salman Rushdie

Why don't science fiction and fantasy take root in Israeli soil? There are various answers to this question, including that the local market is too small, and that the dominant influence on the development of Hebrew literature is Russian realistic and psychological literature.

"I receive only about 10 original manuscripts a year, and the vast majority of them aren't publishable," says Eli Hershtein, sci-fi editor at Keter. "One possible reason is that classic fantasy like Tolkien is based on a mythology of the sword and of magic, a matter very deeply embedded in Christian culture. With us, it's not. Our sources are biblical."

Asked why there hasn't been an Israeli author who can connect the Bible with fantasy, Hershtein replies: "The problem for such an author is that he would become our Salman Rushdie. I don't know what they would do to me if I turned God into some kind of extraterrestrial."

Vered Tuchterman, a translator with Opus Press who writes sci-fi short stories that have won prizes in local competitions, speaks about the negative local reaction to anything perceived as escapist: "Anything that doesn't deal strictly with reality is perceived in this country as inferior. One author said that science fiction deals with the future, and here in Israel, people are very doubtful if this country even has a future."

Prof. Schwartz: "One of the answers is that we are now in a period of gathering together, like that in which Europe found itself 150 years ago. We are coping with questions of our territorial boundaries and not with boundaries on some other level. I think this has to do very indirectly and powerfully with the matter of `letting yourself go.'

"Plus there's very little humor in Israeli literature. It's too serious. It carries a lot of responsibility. That still doesn't mean that we don't have good literature. But it worries me that magical subjects from elsewhere don't interest us because we're so busy with our own nonsense. I'm sick of reading about Jews, Arabs, the secular and the religious, and I'm dying to be able to read about the things that concern Europe and America - like clones and aliens, or mythology."

The "Marganit" series published by Zmora Bitan has contributed a great deal to the publication of high-quality fantasy for young people. Its editor, Yehiam Padan, estimates that of some 140 books published in the series, about half are fantasy.

"Fantasy literature speaks truth," he says. "It touches on very profound and true things that realistic literature isn't able to address. In ordinary literature, one may be transported to Holland or New Zealand, but not be connected with the innermost parts of the soul. A few weeks ago, for example, we published `The Moorchild' by Eloise McGraw, a prize-winning American author. It's the story of a girl who is exceptional, not because she has one blue eye and one red, but because she is a fairy child. In my view, the author dedicated this book to all the kids who have ever felt different and abnormal. All of those kids will read this book with real pleasure, and in my opinion, it's worth publishing books only for them, because they're the ones who read a lot."

Why is there so little original domestic fantasy literature?

Schwartz: "Israeli authors have a huge fear of fantasy. I think there's a general fear of fantasy in the world, but in Europe and America there's a little less rigidity among publishers. There was a certain hesitation about confusing children, a fear of subconscious things in the deepest recesses of our minds. The degree of evil and of meanness with which the bad characters are portrayed in fantasy, for instance, teaches us something about ourselves. In my opinion it can only be helpful for children to be able to look in the mirror and see what they don't want to be."

What's the origin of this fear, here?

"We have a fear and loathing of anything spiritual. Religion, for example. A large segment of the public is afraid of it, so a lot of people look askance at anyone who deals with this sort of thing, whether it's kabbala [Jewish mysticism] or white magic. We want to know what the bottom line is; what will happen tomorrow. Many parents, and therefore many children, aren't interested in spiritual things."

Beats Petah Tikvah

Although fantasy has many fans, our domestic literary critics are evidently not among them. At Opus, which is responsible for most of the books that come out in Hebrew in the genre, and which publishes about 15 books a year in translation, only one home-grown fantasy has been published to date, "The Geography of the End of the World" ("Hageografia Shel Sof Ha'olam") by Michael Omer, a name known to many devotees of the field. Omer has written humorous fantasy influenced by writers like Douglas Adams (of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" fame). But, says author Eshed: "I don't recall that Omer enjoyed critical attention beyond a few lines."

David Hanoch, sci-fi and fantasy editor at Opus, clarifies modestly that it's not a matter of overt critical hostility. "Indifference would be a more accurate way to describe it. We send every book we publish to the newspapers. Books that got great reviews in the United States. The most we get is a tiny mention. The genre bears a stigma in this country. There's a stigma abroad, too, but they make a distinction between outright commercial fantasy and serious literary fantasy. At Opus, we recognize this distinction, but we publish the entire existing range."

Asked how a reader can tell the difference, Hanoch says: "It would help if there were reviews. The reader has to get to know the authors. For instance, `Tigana' by Guy Gavriel Kay, a book based on an imaginary history of Italy, is considered very high quality. Also the `A Song of Fire and Ice' series by George R.R. Martin, a historical fantasy based on the Wars of the Roses, has won a lot of prizes. I can certainly understand why it's hard for a reader to tell the difference based solely on the book jacket, between this and the `Shannara' series by Terry Brooks, for instance, which is considered a very commercial series."

A critic who is considered an exception to this rule is Noa Manheim, who writes for Iton Tel Aviv and YNet: "Unfortunately, it is true that I'm one of the only critics who encourages or even relates to this field," she says. "There's no hostility, but I'd say there is contempt [in the criticism]. If a respected writer like Yitzhak Ben-Ner or Gail Hareven writes science fiction, critics call it post-apocalyptic realism and keep their consciences clear. Translations of fantasy are completely ignored. The genre has developed greatly and become very complicated in the last few years, and aficionados know this, but from the standpoint of critics in Israel, who knows and who cares?

"`A Song of Fire and Ice,' for instance, was a runaway hit in the U.S., at the top of the best-seller lists, while in Israel, two volumes of the series came out and didn't have enough of a following to insure that money would be found for the third volume. I reviewed it for the Internet, but not in Iton Tel Aviv."

Your editor was against it?

Manheim: "Not really. It went like this: I tell the editor, `A new fantasy has come out,' and then he says, `Uh-huh, is there anything else?' Most critics just don't pay attention to it. It's also a matter of age. I'm 27, younger than most critics. Maybe younger people are more flexible in their thinking and hence more receptive to it. When I was younger, I didn't read Amos Oz, but Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin."

Why? What were you looking for?

"In general, I prefer literature that doesn't just allow you, but really pushes you, to dream. For me, the most human things are imagination and the ability to fantasize. That's precisely what science fiction and fantasy are. They also have a lot of hope. The here and now doesn't give me that. Amos Oz doesn't fulfill my desires. I think that one of the most powerful desires people have is to be somewhere else. I mean, what can I say? A trip to Tigana is more compelling for me than a trip to Petah Tikvah."

Herzl's fantasy

Dr. Elana Gomel of Tel Aviv University, who has a doctorate in 19th-century English fantasy literature, makes an interesting point: "Israel first appeared in a work of fantasy - `The Jewish State' by Herzl. We ourselves, in fact, are living today in a work of science fiction."

Can children grow up without fantasy?

Gomel: "It's not good. It's like a vitamin deficiency. Children need legends and imagination. The lack [of these] can even be dangerous. Such children may even have a propensity for violence. There's no research on it, but I think that children who are too bound to the here and now, and who have no outlet for their imagination, can become more violent and competitive and be subject to all kinds of phenomena that we're seeing now in our society."

How is this influence evident exactly?

"Like when people are experimentally prevented from dreaming at night, they manifest very severe psychological disturbance to the point of madness. The need to flee into the realm of the imagination is a crucial psychological need. Possibly if the drivers on Israeli roads had played `Dungeons and Dragons' [a fantasy, role-playing game], they would have gotten rid of their aggressive energy in other ways. I don't claim that if we all turn into Tolkien devotees, the wars will end, but perhaps people would be a little less violent."

How will the current wave of Tolkien and Potter influence us?

"First of all, we'll be freer to align ourselves with more cultural subgroups. I greatly hope that a local fantasy literature will develop here."

How do you imagine it?

"I don't think it has to be like Tolkien, which was influenced a lot by Christianity. It can be influenced by kabbala and by Jewish sources. There's a genre called historical fantasy, a literary category that looks at the possibilities of `what would have happened if,' and maybe that's one of the genres that could develop here, based on local history and on the Bible."n