The hands of loss keep touching the memory

All the Rivers
by Dorit Rabinyan
translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

I remember spotting this book in the Serpent’s Tail catalogue last year and immediately liking the sound of it. It had potential to be brilliant or awful, to deal with complex matters sensitively or insensitively. Thankfully, to my mind, Rabinyan got it just right.

Liat is a translation student spending the academic year in New York City. She is practical and idealistic. Hilmi is a painter struggling for his artistic break. He is passionate and pessimistic. When they meet one day in a coffee shop there is instant attraction, but it also immediately clear that theirs won’t be a straightforward courtship. Besides the fact that Liat has only six months left on her visa, there’s the question of where she will be moving back to. Because she is from Israel and he is from Palestine.

The narrative isn’t quite linear, dealing with different aspects of the relationship in turn. First there’s getting to know each other. Then there’s Hilmi’s burgeoning art career. Then how they act around their friends. And so on. The day of Liat’s departure keeps getting close, only for the story to jump back a few months to fill in fresh detail. It feels very much like the way someone remembering events might structure their thoughts.

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Who am I to judge someone else’s holy site?

how to understand israelHow to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less
by Sarah Glidden

Despite the grandiose title, this is the account of a small, albeit important, step in one person’s attempt to understand the complex situation surrounding Israel and Palestine. Told in comic-book style, it combines journalism and memoir to great effect.

Sarah Glidden is a “cultural Jew”. Raised in America by largely non-religious parents, her own politics being liberal and left-leaning, she has always tended to side against Israel, feeling it to be the political “bad guy”. A combination of a wish to understand, a hope to be proven right and the promise of a free holiday encourage her to sign up for a Birthright Tour. These trips, funded by the Israeli government and private sponsors, are open to Jews from around the world to show them the country that they can choose to move to if they so wish.

Sarah travels with her friend Melissa, another cultural Jew who is more earnest than Sarah in her attempts to learn about Israel without pre-judgement. Melissa’s upbringing was even more secular than Sarah’s, so Judaism itself is strange to her, but she is eager to learn and often frustrated by Sarah’s one-track mind: to every experience, every talk, Sarah asks “but what about the Arabs?”.

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Light bleeds in among the cracks

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
by Michael Chabon

I found this book hard to read and I’m finding it hard to write about, but I don’t want to give the wrong idea. It’s hard in a brilliant, literary way. And it’s sort-of SF. Which I took a while to twig to.

In a big Jewish settlement in Alaska (that should have been my first clue that something was askew), detective Meyer Landsman is called in to the scene of a murder in the very same seedy hotel that he lives in. The dead man was a junkie who played chess – and that’s all anyone seems to know. Landsman’s lifelong love–hate relationship with chess has him intrigued by the case but he is almost immediately told to drop it by his boss, who is also his ex-wife. She is tidying up loose ends before administration of the Sitka district is handed back to the USA, as the Jews’ 50-year lease on the land is about to end.

“She puts a hand to his mouth. She has not touched him in three years. It probably would be too much to say that he feels the darkness lift at the touch of her fingertips against his lips. But it shivers, and light bleeds in among the cracks.”

There is so much going on this novel and it’s all wrapped up in gorgeous language, a combination of the purple prose of, say, Raymond Chandler, and Yiddish. Yes, Yiddish, which I am not so learned in, I must admit. And there’s also a fair selection of outright obscure words (a “hortatory cigarette”, anyone?). Which makes for brilliant quotes (I have marked so many pages in this book) but does not allow a quick read.

“Until this minute Landsman didn’t realize what he and every noz in the District, and the Russian shtarkers and small-time wiseguys, and the FBI and the IRS and the ATF, were up against…You could lead men with a pair of eyes like that. You could send them to the lips of whatever abyss you chose.”

Landsman of course does not drop the case and drags in his partner for good measure, a half-Native-American, half-Jew called Berko Shemets. Which gives Chabon the opportunity to discuss the effect a sudden mass-immigration of Jews immediately following the Second World War might have had on the local Alaskan population, not to mention on US politics in general. Social history, race, religion and culture are central to the story. The Jews are split between the averagely devout, the really devout, or “black hats”, and the…lapsed.

Unsurprisingly, Landsman is the latter. He is your typical detective – divorced, family all dead, a drunk, without faith, obsessive about his work and he chain smokes. He loves his friend Berko but is not above using him badly. He also (and/or perhaps Chabon) has a wry sense of humour.

“Landsman watches the progress of Elijah the Prophet and plans his own death. This is a fourth strategy he has evolved to cheer himself when he’s going down the drain. But of course he has to be careful not to overdo it.”

Despite the familiar trappings of a typical whodunit, with an action-packed story and a variety of bad guys who are linked in various ways, this is not a rip-roaring read because it is just too complex for that. I found it hard to follow and I am honestly sure if this was deliberate or if it was me struggling with the language. There are definitely facts held back, not fully explained until later. And the characters, while being realistically unstraightforward, are kept at a distance, because we effectively experience the story from Landsman’s perspective and he is almost perpetually drunk, so it’s tough to get to know even him.

“Men tend to cry, in Landsman’s experience, when they have been living for a long time with a sense of rightness and safety, and then they realize that all along, just under their boots, lay the abyss. That is part of the policeman’s job, to jerk back the pretty carpet that covers over the deep jagged hole in the floor.”

This novel is to some extent an intellectual exercise. There’s more than one “What if” scenario being played out, but there’s also a lot of general information about Jewish tradition, history and culture, some of which I felt I was expected to already know, to recognise from page one and be at home with. Add to that all the chess discussion and there was a fair bit of this book passing me by. But I kept going, because though I found it tough, I also found it beautiful, in a rough and dirty sort of way.

“The reporters have tumbled their way through the black hats…they haul out the questions they have brought. They unpocket them like stones and throw them all at once. They vandalize the woman with questions.”

First published in Great Britain by Fourth Estate in 2007.
Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2008.

A break from the norm

by Joe Sacco

This is an unusual, interesting, informative but potentially inflammatory work from journalist Joe Sacco. It’s an account of two months spent in Palestine (and occasionally Israel) in 1991–1992, told in graphic novel form.

It’s an interesting idea, this “comic-book journalism” and one that has won Sacco awards, including the 1996 American Book Award for this work. He’s an intelligent man, from what I can tell, and Palestine is a difficult situation that could potentially be too complex or political and therefore dull to many readers. This book is certainly not dull. It’s political, sure, but also moving, graphic, disturbing and compelling.

As journalism goes, this isn’t the third-person, bias-free, author-free account you might expect. The book stars Sacco, following his time in Palestine, his interviewing technique, his thoughts, fears, boasts and worries. Sacco does not do himself favours in his self-depiction. Comic-book Joe is both physically and at times morally unattractive. He admits to craving sordid details that will enliven his journalism. He pushes interviewees for the most disturbing stories and shows little emotional reaction while his translator or host is weeping at what they have heard. He also, unusually for an American, places himself solidly on the Palestinians’ side.

Now I’m not sure if this is a position he took in retrospect, after spending months in Gaza and the West Bank and Jerusalem. He certainly went there with the intention of getting the Palestinian side of the story, because the US tends to only ever hear the Israeli side. It’s a reasonable background to have for his trip. And he clearly knows that he comes across as biased because toward the end of the book we see him spending time with two Israeli women and failing to engage with their arguments. But it did at times make me feel uncomfortable. Very few of the characters he meets are blameless. Yes, the small man on the street, even the soldiers, are ultimately in thrall to what the politicians do or say, but when everyone is throwing stones…who is innocent?

I don’t know a great deal about this situation, a situation that started long before I was born and continues now. I know a lot more than I did before I read this book and I feel both incensed and helpless. Because so many people are trying, have tried, to help. The events of this book happened 20 years ago and it still goes on; people still die, are thrown in jail, live in abject poverty.

Sacco’s artwork is excellent. He draws in black and white, packing in the detail, with lots of big half-page or full-page scenes. He recounts atrocities without getting too graphic, tending instead to concentrate on what he himself saw – one room after another full of people telling him their stories. Which sounds dull. Luckily his humour, in addition to further details from his trip (hazardous roadtrips, riots, menacing soldiers in the street) and the occasional depiction of a story he is being told ensure that this book never gets boring. It is genuinely gripping, in part because from what we learn it seems likely that some of the people we meet will not survive until the end of the story.

I do have a couple of gripes. In a few places early on, Sacco packs a lot of text in to contextualise. Which is necessary and helpful but it’s visually offputting, because to retain the comic-book feel without having many or any pictures he presents the text in various skewiff, haphazard arrangements, sometimes hard to follow. And these are historical events being described which I felt could have been, maybe should have been, illustrated.

Secondly, there’s no real narrative arc. It’s just Sacco’s time in Palestine start to finish. Except not quite because a couple of times he breaks from chronological order to talk about something thematic. But there’s no lessons learned, no how it affected or changed him, no “this is what I’m going to do now I’ve seen what’s happening for real”. Maybe that can’t be helped. If all the world’s politicians can’t figure out what to do then why should I expect an American journalist to have the answers? But somehow I did. The closest he comes is to quote one (Israeli) man he met in Jerusalem:

“Ultimately I don’t think peace is about whether there should be one state or two. Of course that issue is important, but what is the point of two racist states or one racist state…or one racist state dominating another? The point is whether the two peoples can live side by side as equals.”

Of course, what Sacco did was to write and draw this comic series, to spread the word about what life is like in Palestine, what really goes down day-to-day. That’s what journalism is about and it’s an important role. He actually went back and produced a sequel to this, Footnotes in Gaza, in 2009. I definitely want to read it. And that’s saying something. This is not an uplifting read and I don’t expect the sequel to be, but it’s enlightening and if there’s one thing I read for, it’s to be enlightened.

First published as a nine-issue comics series in 1993–1996. Reissued as a single volume with a new introduction in 2001. Published by Fantagraphics Books.