Israel: war wounds

I have a confession to make: I suffer from World War II novel fatigue. There are so many heart-rending, moving and harrowing books set during the years 1939-45 (as well as plenty of not so heart-rending, moving and harrowing ones) that a story in this category has to promise something out of the ordinary to persuade me to pick it up.

So when I heard that the Israeli novel on the 2012 shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was a war novel, I was pretty uninspired. If it hadn’t been for some very enthusiastic comments by members of the judging panel at the London Book Fair, I wouldn’t have given it a second look.

However the premise of Aharon Appelfeld’s novel, which is told from the perspective of an 11-year-old Jewish boy who seeks refuge in a Ukrainian brothel and enters into a sexual relationship with the prostitute who hides him, sounded intriguing. And when it beat the other contenders to the prize, I decided I had to find out whether this book, written by a Holocaust survivor, had something new to say about the events that ultimately led to Israel’s independence.

This is a novel that jumps in and out of the future tense. Starting on the eve of the boy Hugo’s birthday as his mother anticipates their impending separation, the narrative carries a strong sense of foreboding. This works partly through the dramatic irony that comes from the reader’s knowledge of subsequent historical events. Significantly, however, Appelfeld’s descriptions are so subtle and fresh that, were it not for the novel’s marketing, the reader might not even realise that this is a novel set during the war until several chapters in.

This freshness sets the characters free from the accumulated literary baggage of decades of war literature, giving Appelfeld the leeway to present them as individuals first. He does this by foregrounding details in language that is often disarming in its simplicity – the scene where Hugo says goodbye to his mother while trying to keep her for another minute then another, for example, is very touching.

The power of plain language becomes something of a theme in the book, with the prostitute Mariana telling Hugo at one point that ‘a spare way of speaking can also be colourful’. It’s a shame that Appelfeld doesn’t adhere to this when it comes to Hugo’s letters to his mother, which, full of phrases such as ‘the place is feverish’ and ‘in my heart I know that most of the fears are groundless’, have an odd ring to them. Whether these expressions are attempts on Appelfeld’s part to capture the pomposity of intelligent youth or instances of awkward translation, they jar against the subtle immediacy of the rest of the text.

The setting of the novel is very simple too, with much of the action taking place in Mariana’s room and the small closet in which Hugo sleeps. It’s a tribute to Appelfeld’s skill that he is able to sustain an engaging narrative with such a small array of characters and locations. This makes the final section after Mariana and Hugo leave the brothel all the more powerful for its contrast with what has gone before.

Barring one or two slightly repetitious passages, the intensity of the story builds towards the final chapters as a growing awareness of Jewish identity emerges in Hugo’s mind. This is summed up by a woman he encounters helping displaced people towards the end of the book. Her words suggest something of the sense of shared experience and kinship in the face of adversity that would underpin the formation of the future Jewish state:

‘We have to leave together and watch over one another. Brothers don’t say, I’ve already given. Brothers give more, and we have, thank God, a lot to give. One gives a cup of coffee and the other helps a woman bandage her wounds. One gives a blanket, and the other raises the pillow of a person who’s having trouble breathing. We have a lot to give. We don’t know yet how much we have.’

Without doubt, this is a powerful and striking take on the events that shook the world 70 years ago. Even if it wasn’t the pick of the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize judges, it is an accomplished and beautiful work.

Nevertheless, as the novel ended I found myself impatient to see how the story continued after the state of Israel declared its independence. I was curious about books set in the country in recent years and itched to read something like Sara Shilo’s The Falafel King is Dead or David Grossman’s To the End of Land to see how these narratives played out in light of all that has happened in the region since 1948. Ah well, maybe next year.

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld, translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M Green (Alma Books, 2012)

Iraq: getting a perspective

There were quite a lot of contenders available in English for Iraq. Perhaps that’s not a surprise, given that the country has been in and out of Western headlines for more than the last 20 years. Still, it was good to know that the traumatic occurrences of recent decades had not disrupted storymaking in the region – or so I thought until I read this book.

The Madman of Freedom Square – the first commercially published short story collection by Hassan Blasim, co-editor of Arabic literary website Iraq Story – paints a brutal, yet layered picture of the effects of international events on individual lives in and around post-invasion Iraq. Often starting or ending with a mutilated corpse, the tales trace the connections that bind people to one another and reveal the psychological wounds that result when these ties are ripped apart. There are the refugees reduced to animal cruelty when the truck they are locked in is abandoned, the patriotic songwriter turned atheist who wanders the streets railing against God and existence only to meet a gruesome end, and the underground collective that roams Baghdad making art out of its murder victims.

More than anything, this is a book about the function of storytelling. From the very first tale, ‘The Reality and the Record’, in which a traumatised man tries to tell the right story to secure asylum at a refugee centre, the text interrogates the act of narrating, as though trying to identify its weak points and secret guilt.

Sometimes – as in ‘An Army Newspaper’, an account of an unscrupulous editor who gets trapped in his lies when the dead soldier whose work he has passed off as his own continues to submit reams of manuscripts – storytelling takes on monstrous, nightmarish proportions. At other points, as with the sensational anecdotes spread by gossipmongers in the wake of bomb blasts in ‘The Market of Stories’, it seems a low, self-indulgent exercise, a sort of ‘primitive tribal gibberish which tries to hide behind tasteless and gory laughter’.

That story, however, also holds something of a key to the text’s uneasy relationship with its own function. According to the narrator, it may have its roots in Iraq’s history:

‘Since the fall of Saddam Hussein there have been incessant calls for writing to be intelligible, realistic, factual and pragmatic. […] They claim that the writers of the past made the readers defect, whereas in fact for hundreds of years there were no readers in the country, in the broad sense of the word. There were only hungry people, killers, illiterates, soldiers, villagers, people who prayed, people who were lost and people who were oppressed. Our writers seem to have grown tired of writing for each other.’

It’s important to note, of course, that these are the narrator’s words rather than Blasim’s own. Nevertheless, the question of who narrates, who listens and the value of telling at all rankles throughout the book, inviting the reader to look beyond it to the man writing in Arabic in Finland – Blasim’s home since 2004 – and wonder who exactly these words are for.

Underpinning this unease are repeated comments on the world-altering properties of perspective, with many of Blasim’s narrators suffering from mental illness, trauma or profound emotions that render their accounts suspect. The most powerful example, however, comes in ‘The Virgin and the Soldier’, an account of two young lovers doomed to a horrific death when they are accidentally locked in at the sewing factory where they work at the start of a holiday:

‘In reality there was nothing in the factory but army uniforms, but the government’s aim was to make the UN inspectors suspect that the factory was used for prohibited military purposes. […]

On that morning the American satellite pictures could not of course detect the muffled screams on the second floor. The screaming was hardly audible, and desperate. From the end of a world that was dying it reached the sewing room, which was empty and looked like a dreary sunset over an abandoned city.’

Too much distance, Blasim seems to be suggesting, and we become unable to empathise with fellow human beings, like satellites monitoring the Earth from the exosphere. And yet, even as he writes this, the author draws us in to the heart of the events he describes, immersing us in their brutal, bloody and heartbreaking immediacy.

Some of the stories end less successfully than others and there are one or two twists that miss their marks, but overall this is a powerful and thought-provoking work that transports readers to the extremes of human experience – and a mental terrain most of us are lucky enough never to have to  travel through. If Blasim needed proof of the validity of storytelling, he has written it.

The Madman of Freedom Square by Hassan Blasim, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Comma Press, 2011)