'Awful in Israel, Isn’t It?’

In its fantastical style and bold gaze, 'The Champions of Innocence' invites readers to take the literary equivalent of a hallucinogenic drug.

Tamar Merin
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Tamar Merin

“Alufei Hatmimut” (The Champions of Innocence), by Ari Lieberman.
Yedioth Sfarim (Hebrew), 293 pages, 98 shekels

How to write about a book that is beyond your comprehension? How to write about that which is beyond your reach, which briefly touches upon the familiar only to retreat again into strange, foreign, utterly inscrutable territory? Freud called it Das Unheimliche (the uncanny) – that which is at once familiar and strange – but what use is Freud when dealing with a book that purposely avoids providing its characters (and there are many more than you might think) with a coherent psychological narrative, and in fact avoids providing them with a narrative at all?

I would not be exaggerating if I said that Ari Lieberman’s “The Champions of Innocence” is unlike anything I have read in the last few years, both in its style – which shifts with dizzying speed from the lowest and crudest of registers to the giddiest peaks of lyrical Hebrew rich with biblical allusions – and its surreal content, which often verges on the purely nonsensical.

At first glance, the novel tells a classic tale of unrequited love. The story revolves around Shmunik (short for Shimon – as the hero explains – a name that alludes to the Hebrew root shin-mem-nun [fat]). Shmunik, a guard at a shopping mall, clumsy and insecure, aspires privately to become a painter, while spending his time yearning for his old love – the pimply Ortal, who dumped him and left the country to pursue her studies in New York. His hope and passion are rekindled when Ortal comes back for a visit, and, as Mick Jagger teaches us, even if you can’t always get what you want, you may be lucky enough to get what you need. And it seems to me that Shmunik eventually gets what he needs – though nothing is certain in the world of this novel.

The love affair of Shmunik and Ortal, however, is not at all the central story of “The Champions of Innocence.” It is but one of a whole number of events, some of which verge on the fantastical (for example, an Israel Defense Forces general delivering biblical-style sermons of rebuke), and others, alas, embedded in the ordinary reality of Israel in the second decade of the 21st century (for example, attempted rape and violence in TV reality shows).

Throughout, Lieberman relinquishes not only the pretense of sticking to a single and central narrative, to which all the events in the book are subordinate; he also does away with the traditional distinction between main characters and minor ones. Shmunik’s heartbreaking and wistful inner monologues give way to other characters’ stream of consciousness. These burst into the book and disappear. Even Ortal, his eternal love, gets her share of story time to vent her bitterness at the reader.

More than that: Much of what happens in the book has nothing to do with Shmunik or Ortal, or to the myriad voices surrounding them. Events simply happen – sudden, cruel, horrific or hilarious, sometimes all of the above. They glide around within a sphere we may call “Israeliness.” It’s a world in which tanks explode and people are imprisoned for no reason, in which reality-show contestants are beaten to a pulp, and mothers abandon their children because they’re fed up with them.

It would be tempting to argue that, according to Lieberman, Israeliness is a grotesque, nightmarish place, trauma-filled and so forth – except that this novel eschews not only literary conventions concerning character, plot and psychological motivation, but also bon-ton statements such as this. The quotidian brutality of pro-occupation partisans and reality-TV barons is disrupted by long monologues in which the author ridicules also the pampered hypocrisy of those expatriate Israelis in America who are “critical” of the situation at home.

A good example is Ortal, who tries to decide between New York’s Park Slope and East Village while at the same time complaining that “the situation in Israel is awful, don’t you find? It’s just horrifying, what goes on here. This is a fascist, apartheid state controlled by a gang of tycoons, generals and settlers … it’s so outrageous, I can barely describe it.”

Even the demonstrations of Israeli brutality – vulgar, cruel and ugly as they can be – are only one side of that cold, sudden and incomprehensible violence, the kind of violence visited on the woman walking the streets of Brooklyn alone at night. And in any event, all this is dwarfed by the apocalyptic moments described in the novel, anti-realistic moments that – thanks mainly to the biblical resonance – acquire a timeless, mythological character, one that stands apart from any concrete time or place.

Might we explain the unique point of view through which “The Champions of Innocence” explores Israel and Israeliness by appealing to the biography of Ari Lieberman himself – an Israeli who chose to live in the United States? Is it that, as Caspion the Little Fish (the eponymous hero of my favorite children’s book, by Paul Kor) says, in order to see better we need to take a step back? It seems that not only for the author himself, but in the world of the novel as well, staying in Israel forever is not an option. Even Shmunik, who doesn’t know English, understands that the day will come when he too will “disappear” – the word Lieberman uses to describe immigration to the United States.

And indeed, “The Champions of Innocence,” whether consciously or unconsciously, raises the question: What is the literary significance of “disappearing” from Israel and living abroad? What alternative poetic possibilities open up before the Hebrew writer living abroad?

If we look at Israeli literature of the last 50 years, we find that choosing to write in Hebrew – and about Israel – while living in exile has given rise to some daring creations, more experimental both in form and content than the literature issuing from the mainstream of the local literary scene. For example, Rachel Eytan’s provocative second novel, “Pleasures of Man” (1974), in which 1960s Tel Aviv is reflected through the streets of New York, where she was living when she wrote the book. Likewise – though in very different ways – the more recent novels of Maya Arad, or at least those dealing with Israel and Israeli culture.

In many ways Lieberman’s novel continues this literary sub-tradition, which is fascinating and has not been discussed enough. And yet it seems the book is unusual in this category as well. The wild writing, the daring perspective, the boundless imagination of the writer – all these together invite the reader to take a particularly deadly hallucinogenic drug. All these suggest that the ability to look in from the outside is not only a function of geographical location. After all, one can write major literature in a minor language, and even in a foreign land one can produce obedient and preachy texts that cater to the fashion reigning over the sea instead of trying to explore its limits.

But in order to look in from the outside, truly from the outside, you also need to be able to disappear: To give up a position of power in the field of Hebrew literature, to turn away from the dominant gaze of the canon and its minions, to bury the old in order to give birth to the new, champions of innocence.

Soldiers training in Tel Aviv's Carmel Market. The situation in Israel is awful, don't you find, says Ortal, living in New York.Credit: David Bachar