Vered Halevanon (Rose of Lebanon), by Leah AiniKinneret, Zmora-Bitan (Hebrew), 543 pages, NIS 88
The autobiographical novel has already assumed a typically Israeli character, as not merely a personal story fashioned by the varied means available to fiction, but one through which the Israeli experience is illuminated, with its history, cultural and political struggles. "Rose of Lebanon" is an example of this trend. Leah Aini tells the story of a nightmarish childhood, and enlists her personal story to lend voice and shape as well to the masses of immigrants, transparent and disregarded, who have filled Tel Aviv's southern neighborhoods. And to cry out against Israel's policy of wars.During the first Lebanon War, Aini, who was a soldier at the time, volunteered to assist a wounded soldier. The doctors at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, directed her to a young man named Yonatan who had tried to kill himself a fewhours before his unit headed north to Lebanon. Yonatan survived, but suffered brain damage, and the only word he uttered from time to time was his girlfriend's name. The doctors gave Aini the assignment on the assumption that she would take off running as soon as she saw him.
Instead, Aini visited the soldier over the course of a year. Having spent a lot of time thinking about suicide herself, the author felt close to Yonatan and did not view him as a traitor or coward, as he had been classified by the military establishment. Since she could not engage him in conversation during her weekly visits, Aini sat by his side and told him about her life. The chapters of "Rose of Lebanon" move back and forth between the narrative situations (the weekly visits to Tel Hashomer, the attempts to communicate with Yonatan, an encounter with his mother) and the author's stories about her life, from her early childhood to the narrative present, when she is around 20.
This dramatic framework is loaded with significance. On the one hand, there is Aini, whose father, a Holocaust survivor from Salonika, is practically illiterate, and whose mother belongs to the Nash-Didan community (an ancient Aramaic-speaking Jewish community from Ramat Urmia, an enclave between Iran, Turkey and Caucasia). The family settled in the Shapira neighborhood of south Tel Aviv amid poor immigrants, the forsaken and forgotten of Israeli society, before moving, later on, to Bat Yam. On the other hand, there is Yonatan, a representative of the "First Israel," the Ashkenazi one, a native of Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood, with a physician for a mother and a father who works in education. The author muses whether Yonatan would even find her worthy of a glance or conversation if the situation were different. The irony is clear: The "Second Israel" (or the third, or the fourth) manages to speak up only in front of a representative of the "First Israel" who has completely lost his ability to hear and speak.
The main character in the protagonist's stories is her father, who aspires for his daughter to some day tell the story of the annihilation of Greek Jewry. When she is 4, he begins to share with her his horrifying personal stories, along with his nightmares ("they came and took us again ... but not alone this night ... this night you got on the Transport with me, the whole family"), and turns the house into a kind of concentration camp. The attraction and revulsion the author felt toward these stories as a child produce some of the most powerful images in the novel.
The father character's other key trait is his overt desire for his daughter. He is drawn to the narrator's young body, and her whole childhood is spent trying to fend off his penetrating eyes and wandering hands. (The subject of incest has appeared in Aini's work from the start, most explicitly in her 2001 book "Sdommel"). The clash between the father's two main traits is described in several of the book's climactic scenes: "Where is the Holocaust now? The crematoria? The Nazis? Now where are my grandfather and grandmother and the whole family and the orders to remember? Where is the rectifying of the injustice done to the Jews of Greece that is imposed upon me, day and night, as though I were born Cain? Where now are his nightly nightmares and the train with the bodies? I am a sealed train of hate speeding along a hate track to a hate that will never stop. Now I not only have no body, heart or rear or vagina and breasts; now I have no brain either. I have no head at all. Hate simply sprays from me, because there is no longer anything to keep it contained through maneuvering and veiled threats and distractions.... The hatred is naked."
The father's conduct leaves the protagonist with no empathy for the Holocaust and its victims. She mentions the train her father told her about only to develop the image of hatred ("I am a sealed train of hate speeding along a hate track"). The quote cited illustrates one of the novel's most important qualities: Aini does not attempt to airbrush the reality of her life, her father's character or her own, and her sole allegiance is to the little girl and nightmare-ridden adolescent that were once her.
The protagonist's relationship with her father forms part of the central struggle portrayed in the novel. This struggle, a fight for existence and identity, is depicted in ever-widening circles, which begin with the family and end with the army. Aini's parents display no affection for her, and have no qualms about telling her that she was conceived by mistake. Her mother ignores the sexual harassment of the patriarch, and is quick to blame the daughter when she sees the father lying on top of her. The protagonist, who aspires from a young age to be a writer, feels effaced and transparent in her own home. She learns to hide, to make herself disappear; dreams of not being, because to be is to be a wound.
The only ones who help her to stay sane are her grandmother and the dog she raises. The author puts her surname to good use (Aini means "I am not" in Hebrew) when describing the attempts to ignore her, to turn her into nothingness. To counter these attempts, she develops a fierce will to be and to exist, along with a death wish.
The struggle for existence continues at school, where the teacher ignores Aini's accomplishments and steers her toward vocational training, suggesting that she learn to be a seamstress like her mother, or perhaps even a clerk. A wider circle is the Ashkenazi one, whose representatives look down on the girl and her family as uneducated primitives, with whom contact should be kept to a minimum.
The final invalidating circle is that of the military. Aini comes into the army as a young woman who feels she is "odd," "unusual," "different"; as someone who does not know how to connect her "crumbs of selfhood." She is assigned to units that are unsuitable for her (the General Staff's underground command center, for example), and escapes from them thanks only to her chronic migraines.
I cannot recall another Hebrew work in which the institution of the army appears so intimidating and compulsive, and yet so ridiculous, not to say grotesque. I will make do with just one example to convey the depth of otherness with which the army is depicted here. At the army induction center, the new female recruits standing in rows are addressed by "a peacock with a blond buzz cut, two coffins on the epaulet, a fancy diving watch, uniform elegantly disheveled." It takes a moment to catch on that the two coffins are the two rank bars of the lieutenant standing before the soldiers. But no additional time is needed to note the narrator's excellent eye, and to take in the force of the assault she mounts here on the army, its ranks, its rituals, and primarily its wars.
The author's attitude toward Yonatan, the injured soldier in her care, expresses clearly her critical feelings about the army. She does not interpret his suicide attempt as a cowardly act, but on the contrary, sees it as a "scream" against the military establishment and its values, and against the Lebanon War. The entire book sounds this scream. At the same time, it sounds the author's scream against the various social forces that tried to nullify her existence, and in this respect what we get is a victory scream: I wanted to be a writer and here is my book right in front of you.
There is another important aspect to the novel's structure of widening circles. The author repeatedly describes the routes she walked in the Shapira neighborhood: to school, to her father's shop, to her grandmother's house. These routes are described in meticulous detail, lingering on the stores along the way and the array of characters the narrator meets. One of the novel's definite achievements lies in the concrete descriptions of the neighborhood and its residents' everyday life: "Shapira was piled up in a jumble of stores whose metal shutters sank down to the ground in all their heaviness, tenement apartments with drooping shutters, and houses of one or two rooms furrowed with cracks and tar, with their yards blooming with junk heaps and tin-can plants, and mingled with khaki and colored laundry."
The people in the neighborhood, who like the protagonist are transparent, invisible to the northern parts of Tel Aviv, become a sort of extension of the narrator; her story about the struggle to exist and to fulfill her identity becomes their story, too.
Tragically, the father's story - that of the victim turned victimizer - also became the story of the country at large. "The war covers us," the author writes in the final pages, "and we know nothing else. The war is always there, even when on a nice day it ends in order to make way for the next war."
"Rose of Lebanon" sheds new light on Leah Aini's earlier books, and it is without doubt the most interesting and complete work she has produced to date. This is a shattering book, which demonstrates what literature can look like when it is taken seriously.
Prof. Avraham Balaban is a poet, author and literary scholar.