An old American friend writes to me about Israeli writers.
“What is it with them? Are they all frustrated, angry, recluse that write just about frustration?”
This conversation started over 25 years ago with Amos Oz’s Black Box. How can anyone even write with such moody perspective. Can’t Israelis write happy novels and escape the reality or at least give American the feeling that something is good over there? Is it the case that life is such a frustrating experience, filled with tension, fear, anger… that it seeps quietly into literature (without us even knowing it?) Next comes: you (that’s me) tell me that Israel is nothing like what portrayed in the press, but the literature is dark and gloomy. The mainstream press you can dismiss but the literature does not come from nothing! Is this a case of American and European publishers giving their readers what they want? not what is real? After all, publishers and book sellers need to sell books, if people around the world see Israel as a dangerous and frustrating place from the media perspective, sell them books written by frustrating gloomy writers, wallah!
All these are snippets of conversations I have been collecting somewhere in the back of my mind. Amos Oz is just one example of Israeli writers. He is a great writer, but as my friend says “he depresses me”. Well, Amos Oz probably depresses Israelis as much as Italians and Canadians. Literature is as vast and variable as any creative form. Israeli literature covers just about every topic you can imagine. There is no censorship as far as I can tell, specially in fiction. Once in a while a descriptions of military operations and real situations creep up in some books they are not there to reveal deep state secrets. The movies Beufort and Waltz with Bashir are great examples of military movies that do not reveal state secrets. They are personal diaries of soldiers. Israelis like them but the life of war is a very Israeli experience. Since there is such freedom of expression in Israel, writers do not feel like the book is a place to reveal state secrets. Once is a while a book criticizing the military or government, most Israelis do not see this as an extreme act of protest. Actually Israel has something to teach the world: “if society is really open, protests do not become extreme”. Read that again and extrapolate what you have seen from Israeli Muslims and Orthodox Jews. Both off-center minorities apparently have very little to protest about. Both do not enjoy their specific way of life and control of government, but I have not seen bread riots like in Cairo or election protest as in Tehran the last 50 years here in Israel. Why is that?
Israeli writers also reflect how Israelis feel about dealing with war, antisemitism, media bias and pressure of everyday life. The big issues can be ignored on a personal level, you don’t have to watch all the TV news about speeches from Nasralla and Ahmadinajad and scream at the TV for the false accusations from French and British TV. For a long time now Israelis have heard and seen the same stories in different forms. Writers live with the same dilemmas and write about the same issues. Amos Oz writes about frustrations of daily life. He is actually really good at making the reader feel people’s isolation and craziness. He is also good at giving the Israeli angle of daily life. Growing up in Jerusalem and then a Kibbutz he has the life experience to tell about the behavior of Israelis in different environments. Other writers also write very Israeli stories about daily life and the personal experience of Israelis. Actually, looking at the authors with English translations, there are lots of love stories, usually not the happy Danielle Steel ones, but still love stories and the frustrations of love in the modern age. There are lots of stories about people’s lives in general. One of the wonders of Hebrew is how writers here have adopted many writing styles into Hebrew. The adoption of international authors by Israeli writers make it easier for readers around the world understand the Israeli mentality and culture. They get books in the same styles: romance, adventure, travel, even science fiction, as they see in their own language but within an Israeli context. In countries facing some of the same issues as in Israel the books are a look through the key hole of world mass media. While CNN, French TV and BBC focus our attention on political strifes and bickering between this country and that UN policy decision, they can read what a lonely man’s life is like in Jerusalem or how an isolated husband’s wife feels like in modern day Israel (read some books and try to guess about the stories.)