Blurred boundaries in Israeli literature

Israeli newspapers' effusive praise of David Grossman's Man Booker International Prize win is telling of how literature is important in the society

JERUSALEM • It does not happen often, but Israel's headlines allowed themselves a moment of national pride when David Grossman, one of the country's leading novelists, won the Man Booker International Prize for his novel A Horse Walks Into A Bar.

As Haaretz newspaper noted, Grossman, long-known for his left- leaning politics, was "the first Israeli to win the prize, one of the most important annual literary awards", for fiction translated into English.

Even newspapers on the far right celebrated the extraordinary accomplishment. Israel Hayom boasted that Grossman's "works have been translated into 36 languages" and listed his many international awards.

Why, though, does a literary award become leading national news? The answer lies in the unparalleled role literature plays in Israeli society.

Like Shai Agnon - winner of Israel's first Nobel Prize and the only Israeli to win the prize for literature - before him, Grossman acknowledged that his award said much not only about his own talents, but also about the extraordinary project that Zionism - the re-creation of the Jewish people in its ancestral homeland - has been.

Agnon, in his 1966 Stockholm speech, famously began by saying: "As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem."

Israeli author David Grossman won the Man Booker International Prize for his novel A Horse Walks Into A Bar.
Israeli author David Grossman won the Man Booker International Prize for his novel A Horse Walks Into A Bar. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The Nobel went, he said, to a person whose personal story was that of the Jewish people, returning to the land from which it had been exiled.

Grossman, too, pointed to the rebirth of the Jewish people, this time through its Hebrew language.

The prize is "a great sign of honour to our language", he said. "Since it was a dormant language for something like 1,800 years, it is such a phenomenon that in the last 120 years, the Hebrew language has been revitalised" and, like the Jewish people, "awakened from its long sleep".

It is in literature that Israelis conduct their most profound conversations about what is happening to them, particularly given the derailed peace process.

Grossman's novel unfolds over the course of one evening as a stand-up comedian's performance leads the audience in unanticipated directions.

The comedian's personal story is not overtly national, but the context of his desperate search for meaning, his guilt over having chosen to "save" one loved one over another, the novel's preoccupation with opportunities squandered and the audience's periodic cries of "no politics tonight" make it clear that Grossman is speaking not only about a man, but also a society.

The book's last lines leave no doubt that this is his intention. "This concludes the ceremony. Please be careful on your way out. Pay attention to the ushers and security personnel", is language every Israeli recognises as the conclusion of annual nationally televised memorial ceremonies for Holocaust victims and fallen soldiers.

In Israel's greatest literature, the boundary between the personal and the national has been intentionally blurred.

Amos Oz was also shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize this year for Judas. (Israelis noted that having two of the six finalists for the prize was an extraordinary accomplishment for a country with a population approximately the same as New York City.)

Judas centres on three people living in a house in the shadow of the death of a young soldier, years earlier, in the War of Independence. Interwoven throughout the novel is one of the characters' musings on the New Testament figure Judas, symbolic of the ultimate betrayer.

What if Judas did not mean to kill Jesus, the character wonders. What if Judas was so convinced of Jesus' divinity that turning him in to the Romans was meant to afford him an opportunity to reveal his miracle-making, not to kill him?

If so, though, Judas fails. Certain that Jesus could not die, Judas accidentally brings about his death. In what ways, Oz wonders along with many Israelis, does people's ideological passion kill what they love most?

Similar is Grossman's earlier novel To The End Of The Land, in which a mother flees her home so that the soldiers whose job it is to inform families that their sons have been killed will not be able to find her.

It is magical thinking, of course, but that is the point. The desperation to keep their sons alive has led many Israelis to magical thinking - which in the end cannot work.

What made the book even more heartbreaking was that Grossman's son Uri was killed in the last hours of the 2006 Lebanon War, when a ceasefire had already been negotiated, just as his father was completing work on the book.

BLOOMBERG

•Daniel Gordis is senior vice-president and the Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is Israel: A Concise History Of A Nation Reborn (US$12.99 or S$18 from Amazon.com).

•A Horse Walks Into A Bar (S$19.32) is available at Books Kinokuniya.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2017, with the headline 'Blurred boundaries in Israeli literature'. Print Edition | Subscribe