World Fiction: Modern Israeli

Within 4 days of each other this summer, two friends of mine – unknown to each other – and living in different parts of the world came up with book recommendations for the same author – Eshkol Nevo.  The first recommendation came in a letter from my friend Mark who lives in Kfar Sava, Israel.  In the letter Mark comments “You’ll have to read Nevo’s ‘Homesick‘, I want the lads to talk about it when we get together, he touched me.” (a trip several of us make every two years or so.)  Less than a week later on Facebook,  Ranen who teaches Literature at the University of Miami wrote me almost identical words about the book ‘World Cup Wishes‘, also by Mr. Nevo. Cover of book 'Homesick'

Both books (the library doesn’t yet own World Cup Wishes) are absorbing and may well be some of the best examples of modern Israeli fiction that are available . . . in English.   Here’s the rub; many respected foreign language writers find it very difficult to get sold in the US market. The translations are there, these titles are already being sold in the UK, Australia and Canada to critical acclaim, but US publishers aren’t picking them up.  I bought my copy of ‘World Cup Wishes’ from Amazon Canada.  In The Translation Gap: Why More Foreign Writers Aren’t Published in America, Emily Williams points out that the reasons for this aren’t so much cultural as much as economic and some literary pigeon-holing; does the writer get directed or marketed to target audiences in a way not done overseas?

From a reader’s standpoint, I adored both books, but I believe they challenge us because of how they’re written. The storytelling is intensely personal, the narrations are mostly multiple first person.  The style is polyphonic; the various characters narrating from their perspective.  It took me awhile to get used to it and to be able to follow the storyline and who was narrating; I sometimes felt like I was on a merry-go-round where I kept changing seats, but it’s well worth it.  Chapters are short because it’s the perception that changes, not the occasion. This isn’t how we (Americans) normally read a story.

I liked them because the people and places are real, what happens is day-to-day and not the sensationalized fodder we read or see in the news.  Nevo doesn’t run from what makes Israel fascinating (or horrifying if that’s your inclination,) or deny it’s importance; but there’s perspective – catching buses, class assignments, friendships or surgeries are more real for his characters than diplomacy and peace proposals.  The history between Jews and Palestinians underlies much of ‘Homesick‘, as does the unresolved tensions between the religious and the secular, but they aren’t what the story is about – it is a love story.

‘World Cup Wishes’ also touches on the things we see or read about as history and current events, but they’re peripheral.  It too is about relationships, the evolution of friendships, jealousy, forgiveness, and the place of spirituality in a modern society and using the World Cup as the timeline to measure accomplishment.

Richard

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