Telling Ourselves a New Story

David Grossman and Ilana Dayan's talk made a mediocre day worthwhile.

Day Four. Yesterday was a day of disappointments and of some disorientation (so many languages, so many translators, both of the books being discussed and the discussions themselves, when the writers were foreign) − which thankfully ended, as the festival itself was drawing to a close, with an event so satisfying that it made up for the false starts and irritations that preceded it.

In the morning, I attended another of the translator-writer sessions I've been describing all week. This time it was a meeting between Hagit Bat-Ada and two of the writers she has translated, Ismail Kadare and Andrei Makine. Kadare is an Albanian, Makine a Russian native, but both live in Paris (Kadare half the time) and write in French.

Bat-Ada was a gracious and generous host, which was fortunate, since for reasons unknown to me, the two writers did not acknowledge one another, and addressed only the translator, who sat between them. Actually, Kadare, who has had a fascinating life, according to background material I had read about him, mainly told Bat-Ada why he couldn't answer her questions, or protested that she was misrepresenting him. Makine, on the other hand, turned on the charm, and, among other things, told the well-known story of how, when he arrived in France two decades ago, he took the manuscript of his first book to a publisher. He had written it in French, but got the feeling that the publisher doubted that someone with his accent could have written in such fine language. Hence, he told them the manuscript was a translation of his original text in Russian. They bought the story, in both senses, and through the publication of his first three novels, Kadare kept up with his invention of the non-existent translator. Or so he says, and a wonderful tale it is.

Later in the day, I sat in on a meeting between Makine and Boris Zeidman, an Israeli writer, also of Russian origin, who today writes, like Makine, in the language of his adopted home. A confrontation that seemed to have potential, no? Unfortunately, their conversation was conducted in Russian, with simultaneous translation provided by the Interpreter from Hell. True, there were plenty of technical problems, including interference, apparently, from the nearby communications hub of the visiting U.S. president. But the real problem was that the translator imposed himself on the conversation he was supposed to be conveying (exactly what translators are not expected to do, as I'd been hearing all week), without allowing his audience to follow the speakers they'd come to hear. I left after 10 minutes, about when Makine began recounting his tale about making up a translator − although if I hadn't already heard the same story earlier in the day, I wouldn?t have been able to follow the version provided by the translator.

I returned to the big top an hour later to hear Ilana Dayan interview David Grossman. The choice was predictably safe: one of our country?s most intelligent and sympathetic journalists speaking with a writer whose dignity, grace, humor and − foremost − imagination have made him a national treasure. Because Grossman's new Hebrew novel is about a woman who "knows" that her son is going to be killed when he heads off to emergency reserve duty in the territories, it was inevitable and necessary for Dayan to ask the author about the death two summers ago of his own soldier son, Uri, in the final hours of the Second Lebanon War. Without the words "son," "death" or "Lebanon" being spoken − only "what happened to me and my family" − Grossman succeeded in answering Dayan's questions openly, without eliciting anything like pity from his listeners, only affection.

I can share only snippets of their conversation with you. Grossman said he doesn't run away from life, and doesn't see his character, Ora, who heads off on a weeklong hike so as not to be home when the army's representatives show up to deliver her the news, as escaping either (although his book is titled "A Woman Runs Away from Tidings"). Rather, he sees her as relinquishing her passivity to protest a situation she finds intolerable, as he put it, "she takes her fate into her hands."In the European tradition of the public intellectual, Grossman often speaks out on social and political issues, and has long expressed his opposition to Israel's presence in the territories. Yesterday, though, he didn?t speak about the Palestinians or the injustices they suffer at Israel's hands. He spoke instead about his fears that Israel may cease to exist, that it may not be around to celebrate its second 60 years."We have very effective partners" in maintaining a state of war, he said. "But I ask what our part is in this, in our feeling of temporary-ness." He recalls the character Avram in his new book, who is taken captive by Egypt during the Yom Kippur War, and whose captors succeed in convincing him over the course of a week that Israel has been destroyed. Why is it so easy to imagine such a thing, asked Grossman rhetorically.The Jews gave the world the gift of abstract thinking, suggests Grossman. "I think it began with the invention of an unseen God. And it went on to the ability of the Jew in Spain, and Morocco and Poland, to feel a connection to a land he's never been to." The Jews gave humanity "a big story," that takes in Masada and the Holocaust and Entebbe, and humanity has used that story either to "idealize or demonize" the Jews, "which I see as the two sides of dehumanization."We need to tell ourselves a new story. Only if we can do this will we be able to avoid falling between the cracks that have begun to open up in the floor tiles."

Grossman then turned directly to the audience and spoke about how, "in our most intimate moments," even as we are making love, the state − not the government necessarily, but the idea of the State of Israel and its never-ending condition of war − seeps into our consciousness. "Think about what this does to us in our hearts, to our most intimate selves. This is the real reason for us to have peace."Now I'm going to stop writing about writers talking about writing books, and go read one of their books.