Not long ago, writer Assaf Gavron accompanied his parents on a tour of several old-age homes. They are both in their 80s, Israelis who made aliyah from England, and who were now seriously considering the possibility of moving into a retirement facility. On one such visit, as they walked around and examined the dining room, the neat and compact apartments and the leisure-time area, one of the residents struck up a conversation with them. “You just looked at her and you knew she had been a fighter in the Irgun or something like that,” says Gavron, who is himself 48.
The woman was intrigued hearing his parents’ heavily accented Hebrew, still present despite their 60 years in Israel. “She asked where they were from and when they told her England, she said, ‘I like the Brits,’ but then a moment later she added, ‘Just not the ones from the Mandate.’” That exchange made Gavron realize that while the British Mandate may have ended in 1948, the feelings it stirred in those who lived through it are still alive.
The British rule of Palestine – which lasted from 1920 until Israeli independence – and its impact on people, also forms the main plot axis of “The Eighteen Strokes,” Gavron’s new Hebrew-language novel (Aliyat Hagag/Mishkal/Yedioth Books). It is based on real events that occurred in late 1946, when the Zionist movement and its militias were battling the British for independence while fending off attacks from their Arab neighbors too.
The British authorities sometimes subjected their opponents to flogging. This was the punishment meted out to several fighters from the Jewish Irgun underground who were captured during an assault on the Ottoman Bank in Jaffa. In response, the right-wing Irgun militia, on orders from its leader, Menachem Begin, then embarked on a quest for revenge: On December 29, 1946, cells of Irgun fighters set off to apprehend British officers, to subject them to the same brutal punishment. They found several victims in Netanya, Rishon Letzion and Tel Aviv, and led them to dark street corners or other secluded spots where, as an act of reprisal, they flogged each one 18 times, the same number applied by the British to a 16-year-old Irgun fighter who participated in the bank robbery.
“The ‘Night of the Beatings’,” says Gavron, “is not as well known as some of the other ‘classics’ of the fight against the Mandate. It’s not the ‘Sergeants’ Affair’ or the bombing of the King David or the Altalena. I didn’t want to dig into an already familiar story, and this sounded fascinating. [Menachem] Begin devoted a chapter to it in ‘The Revolt,’ his book about the Irgun. The floggings [of his comrades] really upset and enraged him, even more than when some fighters were hanged.”
Maybe because to die in battle is such a masculine thing, unlike getting whipped on the rear.
“Yes, and you also expect to die in war, and being flogged on the rear-end is really a terrible thing. His reaction apparently was also connected to childhood trauma he experienced in Poland. As a boy, he witnessed an elderly Jew being flogged and this absolutely drove him mad.”
As Gavron discovered, the Night of the Beatings had a far-reaching impact. The incident was reported in the news around the world, and made the British a laughingstock. Caricatures were drawn, articles were written, and the collective humiliation was such that a short time later, the Mandatory authorities changed the law about allowing beatings.
But Gavron focused not on this achievement (or on the subsequent hanging of three Irgun members who were apprehended while on their way to carry out a similar action), but on the British victims. He was intrigued by the thought of how these “lords of the manor” were brought so low by this event. Out of this germ of an idea, he spun a tale that begins with a great romance and culminates in an act of betrayal and humiliation; of vengeance that was plotted 60 years ago and its ruinous and lethal payback even to this day.
Gavron’s non-mainstream viewpoint is evident not just in his new book, but also in the essay he wrote for the book to be published this June by the anti-occupation organization Breaking the Silence, in tandem with the American writers Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon. “Kingdom of Olives and Ashes” began to evoke a storm of reaction in Israel almost as soon as the project was announced, and long before a single word of it had been published.
Gavron is the only Jewish Israeli who participated in writing one of the book’s more than 25 essays, alongside such big-name writers as Dave Eggers, Geraldine Brooks and Colum McCann. Each of them, in his or her own particular way, examines life in Israel and Palestine a half-century into the occupation. Gavron’s piece is about Palestinian soccer, about the problems the Palestinian national team encounters crossing the border, and about the political and diplomatic use made by the Palestinians of the team, including by way of FIFA – one of the few international institutions to have recognized Palestine as a state.
“I think it’s important to express your opinions, particularly abroad,” says Gavron. “There’s all this criticism of Breaking the Silence [which collects and publishes testimonies of Israeli soldiers regarding their service in the territories] that says – ‘Why are they speaking abroad?’ But, why shouldn’t they? These are important things that need to be heard. Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] can go stand before Congress and make his views known, so why can’t others do likewise? I’ve never understood that.”
Are you at all anxious about being part of the book, and the only Jewish Israeli among its contributors? It’s easy to predict what the reception will be like in Israel.
“I’m proud to be in there. There were supposed to be some more Israeli writers, and it just happened to turn out this way, but I have no problem with it. I support the organization and I support the book and I hope it will be read both inside Israel and outside. This is a book that talks about the facts. It has also gone through all the necessary fact-checking and legal reviews. We all know there are people in Israel who don’t want to see these facts. I hope that gradually more and more people will be willing to look.”
Shawarma and peanuts
The main character of “The Eighteen Strokes,” Gavron’s eighth book, is a 44-year-old taxi driver with a fondness for both shawarma and peanuts. Loyal Gavron readers will recognize Eitan Einoch. In Gavron’s fourth book, “CrocAttack” (called “Almost Dead” in its U.S. edition), from 2006, Eitan, nicknamed “Croc,” works in high-tech and becomes a national celebrity after he survives three life-altering terror attacks, one after the other, during the second intifada. Now, 11 years later, he’s back, this time as a somewhat reluctant detective. This happens after an elegantly dressed old woman gets into his cab and tells him about a long-ago incident that involves three old friends who had recently reappeared in her life. Now, at the woman’s request, and with the help of a friend, Eitan tries to solve a mystery: What led to the deaths of two of those friends, and what does it all have to do with his passenger’s beautiful and enigmatic granddaughter, who will lead our hero to take Viagra for the first time?
“The ‘Night of the Beatings’ did really happen,” Gavron explains. “It’s a historical fact, but the story I tell is fictional. The story is that the Irgun abducted several soldiers, flogged them and released them, and afterward the British were laughed at everywhere and so humiliated that they stopped flogging Jews. And maybe somehow, it also had some effect on the end of the Mandate.”
And you’re trying to understand what the story beneath the story was.
“Why did those involved end up in this situation, getting flogged? I started to think about a love story, and about a revenge story. It’s not the historical story, but I’m sure that the real historical stories were like this too. They involved human emotion, love, vengeance. I’m not talking about the leaders and what their experiences were, but just about an ordinary person who happened to get mad at someone, and went out and did something.”
“The Eighteen Strokes,” a fast-flowing novel written in everyday language, began to take shape shortly after the publication of Gavron’s preceding novel, the epic “The Hilltop.” It was born out of a combination of ideas that were swirling in his mind, and it had special resonance for him because of his own British family background; there was also a desire to revive a character years after it was first written – an idea borrowed from the late American writer John Updike, and his recurring character Harry Rabbit.
“I also loved the idea that he also had an animal name,” Gavron says with a smile. “In ‘CrocAttack,’ he’s 33 and a third. Here’s he’s 44 and a quarter. So he’ll probably be back for the third time when he’s 55 and a fifth.”
Why make him a cab driver?
“It’s an interesting position to be in, with and without regard to the detective story. You’re driving all day and not getting anywhere. You’re meeting people and hearing stories. A taxi driver never knows where he’ll end up going. As far as the detective side of things, in the first book, Croc also did some amateur sleuthing. And I actually find an amateur sleuth more interesting than a private investigator or police detective, the two types that you usually find in this genre.”
Reading the book, I had the feeling that part of what you wanted here was to have a good time with the writing, or just to take it easy.
“Mysteries and thrillers, and romances – these are genres that are considered less serious, and easier to write, but for me it wasn’t such an easy endeavor. I ended up sweating over it, and it took me four years. There were issues that needed resolving.”
Gavron cites historical questions and plot points as the “issues that needed resolving,” but the category might also include other areas where he and his hero overlap. Gavron is a somewhat unusual figure in the local literary landscape. He’s published eight books in Hebrew, and is part of a social milieu that includes contemporaries like Etgar Keret, Sayed Kashua, Nir Baram and Dikla Keidar, but he may be better known among English readers than at home.
Born in Arad, he grew up in Motza Ilit outside Jerusalem and published his first book, “Ace,” in 1997. Before that, he was a journalist, and wrote a column about fast food that appeared in the Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha’ir (the columns were later collected in a book, “Eating Standing Up”). He also worked in the creative department of a high-tech company, and as a translator, editor and musician.
Since 1989, his band, The Mouth and Foot, has attracted a cult following, releasing an album every six years. The next one is due out in 2019, and Gavron, the vocalist, says he and his partners, Ram Orion and Ohad Fishof, have just begun sketching out some new material. “The older we get,” he comments, “the faster six years seems to go by.”
In addition to his literary and musical endeavors, Gavron also works in the research division of IBM, on a project that involves artificial intelligence and language processing.
His books, especially the novels “Moving,” “CrocAttack,” “Hydromania” and “The Hilltop” have been quite successful abroad, often more than in Israel. This is particularly true in the case of “CrocAttack.” The book did not do well in Israel, likely due to its subject matter of terror attacks, in part as seen through the eyes of the terrorist. But it won prizes in Europe and was included on The L.A. Times’ list of 10 best books for 2010.
It may have something to do with Gavron’s excellent English, which has helped make him not only an esteemed translator from English to Hebrew (he has translated books by David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Safran Foer, Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and others), as well as translator of some of his own books from Hebrew to English. And it may also have something to do with his dedication to the business side of being a writer. He writes every morning between 5 and 7, before turning to other pursuits. He has also spent long periods abroad in order to write, with fellowships that have allowed him to teach in foreign universities. “The Eighteen Strokes,” for example, was written while he was living with his wife and two daughters in Omaha, teaching Jewish and Israeli literature at the University of Nebraska. At the end of the academic year, upon their return to Israel, he and his wife decided to divorce.
All of this, it seems, is connected to the literary matters that needed resolving. Many of the personal changes in Gavron’s life in the last few years seem to be reflected in the life of his literary protagonist. Croc is now divorced with a daughter, and their relationship resembles the way Gavron describes his connection with his own daughters; like his creator, Croc also has a thing for peanuts and practices boxing in a smelly basement in Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Center. Croc’s musings about marriage, faithfulness, divorce and the chance of finding a love so powerful it’s like a force of nature, even his thoughts about aging sound like they well might be the author’s own personal thoughts.
Gavron acknowledges this, but insists that, “there are whole parts of the story that have nothing to do with me. I was a bit ahead of things with the divorce part. I wrote this three years ago. But the thoughts about marriage and love, not necessarily the thoughts of the main character, but those of the elderly folks whose love is reignited after 60 years – I went back to them a lot.”
I’m wondering if you started out planning to take it easy, but then found you were preoccupied with other things that then appear in the book. Thoughts that tend to surface in connection with a personal crisis or mid-life crisis, or both.
“Yes, I’m pretty sure you’re right. When I started writing the book, I felt like the dramas were behind me. I thought I was in a tranquil place. But then things started to happen and they affected what I wanted to say. Not that I have new insights to proclaim to the world, but there were things I wanted to deal with, questions that I started asking myself about love, about marriage. During these three years of writing, things changed for me and so Eitan was also affected, poor guy. I hope that by age 55 he’ll be beyond all of this stuff. His thoughts on these things, about women and relationships, were things that were on my mind at that time. But any discussion of these subjects is still secondary to the main plot.”
I disagree with you. I see the investigation as an excuse to discuss topics that frequently preoccupy a man at this stage in his life – the longing for something big and exciting to happen to him, when everything is calm and settled.
“The yearnings of a 40-something man?”
“Maybe.” Gavron laughs. “I won’t dispute that interpretation, though I’m not sure it’s the only one. The story of the old people, of the history and the British – all these things exist together. A writer’s ability to integrate all kinds of topics and stories and characters, that’s where the strength of a novel lies. It’s not a riddle where you have to choose what the main thing is, and I’m not arguing with the interpretation. There’s a lot of truth in it, although it was not a conscious thing while I was writing it.”
For example, the whole episode with the Viagra seems like a little bit of a lament for bygone youth.
“Why just a little?” he smiles again. “I can’t point to one moment and say: I had a crisis over turning 40 or I’m bracing for the crisis of turning 50, but the body gradually loses things. It also gains things – I look better now than I did when I was 20. I was pretty ugly then. Croc was 33 in ‘CrocAttack’ and there’s a bit in there where he looks in the mirror and sees a little gray. In the new book, he’s been through some real, more serious problems. At this age you’re dealing with more serious things going bad, but it’s okay,” Gavron laughs heartily here. “There are solutions.”
Faithful to his credo that work on a manuscript is never done, and that as soon as one book comes out, a new book is in progress, Gavron is currently at work on a number of different projects and on a new idea for a book. The next one, which he has just begun to write, will apparently resemble “The Hilltop” in scope and literary aspirations – or, as Gavron describes it, “It will be a heavy, literary book.” It will be based upon his childhood experiences and the Motza of his childhood and youth. “Now it’s a kind of Savyon of Jerusalem, where [incarcerated former Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert and [former Defense Minister] Yitzhak Mordechai live, but it wasn’t like that when we were growing up. It was a moshav. There was also a whole collection of people – immigrants from America and France, Mizrahim, those who’d remained from the moshav who had chicken coops and cowsheds and all kinds of animals, Holocaust survivors and shell-shocked veterans roaming the streets. The geography there is gorgeous, in the Jerusalem hills. There were some interesting characters among my gang of friends too.”
Gavron spent a lot of time beyond the Green Line when working on “The Hilltop,’ with much of his research concentrated on the various expansions of the Tekoa settlement, south of Jerusalem. He often talks about his experiences there on his travels abroad.
“In America, especially among the Jews, there’s a sense that they want to understand, to know, not to just accept a political view but to really understand what’s happening there in the settlements,” he says. “It varies a lot from place to place. I just got back last week from a trip to Washington and to Italy. In Washington, you find the most sophisticated audience, people who are really knowledgeable and familiar with the situation, and it’s a challenging audience. In Italy, when I go somewhere like Siena, where I was last week, the audience isn’t familiar with things. In London, I sometimes feel challenged from the left.”
“The Hilltop” was consciously written in a way that assiduously tried to avoid being judgmental, so it may not be entirely pleasing to any segment of the political spectrum, and it also refrains from adopting any clear position (“Gavron juxtaposes the two familiar representative clichés of the settlers and alternates rapidly between them, stirs up trouble between them and plays with them,” wrote Omri Herzog in a review of the book in this paper).
“I make a distinction between what I write as fiction and what I write as nonfiction,” Gavron explains. “I don’t feel that fiction is the place for a writer to express a political opinion. For me, in ‘The Hilltop,’ as in ‘CrocAttack,’ the objective is to understand the people from a human, empathetic perspective. I’m not ashamed of my political opinions and I express them outside of my fiction, like in the essay in the Breaking the Silence book.”
Did you ever think about what price you might have to pay for taking part in that book?
“You can’t take something like that into consideration. I don’t think it will make me more popular somewhere, even if right-wingers say that I’m trying to curry favor abroad. I think that most of the people abroad who buy and read books about Israel are pro-Israel. I’m doing it because I believe in it and think it’s important. The 50th anniversary of the occupation is a dramatic milestone, almost inconceivable. I’m in favor of ending the occupation and of doing as much as possible to increase awareness for going in this direction. I don’t know if it was something I should have taken into account, or if others who were asked to take part took it into account. As far as I was concerned, there was no question."