Drama of Dislocation: A Child's-eye View of Life in a 1950s' Israeli Transit Camp

Author Ronit Matalon’s new novel is one of fitful illumination, favoring fragmented impressionistic scenes over conventional plot.

Benjamin Balint
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A transit camp for new immigrants in Israel, circa 1950. The rise of Nasser’s brand of Arab nationalism put an end to the comfortable world of the protagonist's family.
A transit camp for new immigrants in Israel, circa 1950. The rise of Nasser’s brand of Arab nationalism put an end to the comfortable world of the protagonist's family.Credit: Kluger Zoltan / GPO
Benjamin Balint

“The Sound of Our Steps,” by Ronit Matalon (translated by Dalya Bilu), Metropolitan Books, 384 pages, $35

“The Sound of Our Steps,” Ronit Matalon’s latest and most fully realized novel, carries readers on a quiet but irresistible current into the lives of a mother and her three children. Their home — a flimsy prefabricated shack in a transit camp for new immigrants near the Israeli town of Kiryat Ono — is a place apart, and a time apart. Although set in the 1950s and ’60s, the novel gives events of the outside world — the execution of Adolf Eichmann, the 1967 Six-Day War — only glancing mention. Dates are almost entirely absent. Here Matalon measures time by instinct rather than by the clock or calendar.

This is a child’s measure, and a child’s instinct. Originally published in Hebrew in 2008, Matalon’s autobiographical story unfolds through the eyes of the youngest daughter, Toni, who is simply called “the child.” The child knows two things. She knows that the secret of life “stemmed from the connections between things, from the invisible glue joining them together more than from the things themselves on their own.” This awareness acquaints her with a family bound by “loops and labyrinths” of conversation, and by “a weave of dread and love.”

The child knows, too, how to observe, how to discern so keenly that her sight becomes almost tangible. “She looked and looked,” Matalon writes, “feeling the dimensions, the volume and texture of her own gaze as if it were a thing.”

Looking inward, the child summons up scenes “of enormous oppression and enormous awakening at the same time.” But she also looks outward — at her sister, Corinne, haughty, brittle and beautiful; at her brother, Sammy, an apprentice welder; and above all at her careworn mother, Lucette (whose name was Hebraized on arrival in Israel to Levana).

What does the child see? In short, the after-effects of a drama of disruption and dislocation. As Toni grows up, she learns in piecemeal fashion that her mother has suffered a series of leave-takings. Married off in Cairo at the age of 15, she got pregnant at 16, and shortly after ran away from her abusive husband. She married again just before giving birth to Sammy. The rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s brand of Arab nationalism put an end to their comfortable world, and before giving birth to Corinne, she and her second husband, Maurice, took their leave of Cairo. Finally, when Lucette was pregnant with Toni, Maurice left her, and would return only sporadically.

In her daughter’s eyes, this double exile — from country and from husband — had sapped the mother of her femininity, her social status (she now worked at a youth center in Petah Tikva and as a house cleaner in Savyon), her language (she remained nearly illiterate in Hebrew, ashamed of her crooked, “wounded handwriting”), and finally even of “the strength to say ‘I.’”

In sentences as tightly coiled as Lucette herself, Matalon describes how this erosion in character, and the efforts to keep up appearances despite it, have made the mother tense, erratic and driven by a barely suppressed rage. When not upbraiding her children, she is hitting them with brooms and shoes. She throws vases. Her words, in Corinne’s image, pierce like nails.

Author Ronit Matalon.Credit: Dan Porges

Patina of violence

Motherhood runs like an artery through contemporary Hebrew fiction. Mothers are mentally unstable, as in Amos Oz’s “The Hill of Evil Counsel,” for example; or criminally silent, as in Lea Aini’s “Sdommel”; or full of foreboding and dread, as in David Grossman’s “To the End of the Land.” But Matalon gives us a mother whose longing and warmth have acquired a patina of violence.

Finally, and more intermittently, Toni looks at her father Maurice, a smooth-tongued nomad with an Omar Sharif mustache, given to extravagant talk about his friendships with Pablo Picasso and Israeli politician Yigal Allon. Having variously tried his luck as a freelance journalist in France, a PR man in Italy, a translator at the United Nations and an exporter of Valium pills to Egypt – he devotes his energies now to agitating on behalf of Israel’s underclass, the Sephardim (Jews who originate in Middle Eastern or North African countries). The child watches his abrupt appearances and disappearances, experiences his aura of absence. Sometimes years pass between his visits to the shack. “He flickered on and off,” the child notices, “in the lives of others and in his own life, too.”

All this plays on the line between memoir and fiction. Ronit Matalon’s own father, Felix Matalon, she has said elsewhere, “was in the habit of disappearing from our home for months on end for the sake of his activities, political and otherwise.” In previous novels, Matalon has embedded her fiction with excerpts from other sources, like Egyptian-Jewish writer Jacqueline Kahanoff’s essays in “The One Facing Us,” George Steiner’s musings in “Uncover Her Face,” and her own essays about the first intifada in “Bliss.” (Matalon reported for Haaretz between the first intifada and the Oslo Accords.)

Here, she cites her father’s paranoid pamphlets, which displace blame for his estrangement from his family onto the “Ben-Gurionists.” They have somehow taken away his family “by means of libel, slander, and threats.” Their doctrine, he rants, is “militaristic,” “anti-Sephardic” and “neo-racist.”

As befits the form of retrieved memories, Matalon’s style — rendered with singular skill from Hebrew into English by the translator Dalya Bilu — is one of fitful illumination. It favors impressionistic scenes over conventional plot. The novel is scaffolded by fragments, ranging from a paragraph to several pages, which skip between earlier and later. Gradually, they coalesce into a portrait of a family “buffeted by the movement between the past and the future.” In fact, for Toni there is no earlier or later: Her “sense of simultaneity,” she says, “is my earliest sense of myself, more personal than my own name.”

It is also a style of deliberate blurring: “She both believed and did not quite believe.” Grandeur is “fake or not fake.” A sentence is “spoken or not.” The home is also a “non-home.”

After Lucette’s death, we realize that the narrator is looking back from the aftermath of loss: her parents’ loss of their country, her mother’s loss of husband, a daughter’s loss of father and mother, and the narrator’s own loss of childhood. This is the novel’s undertow: Presence has been altered by absence. In inventorying what has fled into the dissolving dream of the past, what has been subtracted, “The Sound of Our Steps” turns sorrow into a poem that compensates for what has been lost.

Benjamin Balint, a writer and translator living in Jerusalem, is the author of “Running Commentary” (2010).

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