Michal Govrin, Snapshots, Am Oved Publishers
The Blessed Choice of Uncertainty
by: Yoram Meltser
Ma’ariv, Daily Newspaper, June 14, 2002
The last few years have seen the growing use of the term “narrative”. The word “narrative” has become so common that there is almost no need to clarify it. In general, one can say that a narrative tells the story of a certain social group, describing events or processes concerning that group. Since by nature the narrative is subjective, it is in constant competition and struggle with other narratives, which co-exist parallel to it. At times, depending on the subject matter, the different narratives maintain a relationship of response and counter-response.
This short description explains why there is an essential connection between the term “narrative” and the post-modern approach, which has also become common in our circles. One of the characteristics of a post-modern world description is the pre- determination that there is nothing but narratives in the world. Every group, every person, even every story, told at a certain time by a certain person, adds another narrative to the universe. It is a biology, or a physics-like approach: all the narratives exit in a transparent aquarium, running around their universe like slightly mad electrons in a Hizenbergian world of uncertainty. It is obvious that those electrons-narratives are self-sufficient and any attempt by us, the readers, to measure what is happening in the aquarium is doomed to failure since the measurement itself changes the state of the entire system.
We are not talking here about abstract matters, but about our immediate world of ideas. Snapshots, Michal Govrin’s new and fascinating novel, is a wide discussion hall, which deals exactly with that. Before I get to the novel itself, I would like to add a few sentences. Now that Yossi Beilin announced that he is entering the crazy political arena as an independent player, it will be worth remembering a statement he made following his involvement in the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Beilin said that the task both sides are facing is first, that each of them will tell his story, and second, that they will both start writing a common story that does not erase either the first story or the second from the face of the earth. He was referring to a fusion of harmony between narratives as an alternative to a nuclear explosion.
I believe that these ideas are at the base of Michal Govrin’s new book. The basic plot is as follows: Ilana, daughter of the Israeli aristocracy, whose father was a pioneering Zionist, is an Israeli architect, a former member of the extreme Israeli left, living in exile in Paris. Ilana is married to Alain, a French-Jewish historian who researches the holocaust. Ilana has a severe “father problem”, a psychological dimension that weighs on her throughout her life.
Her marriage to Alain is not successful and she has other love affairs, the main one being her love affair with a Palestinian named Said, a theatre director who lives mostly in Amsterdam. Ilana has two sons whom she takes with her to Jerusalem, leaving Alain in Paris. The time is just before the Gulf War and the beginning of the first Intifada. Ilana and Said are planning a joint cultural project: Ilana is designing an architectural Succah (hut) where Said’s theatre company will perform. The relationship between Ilana and Said does not bear good fruit, neither on the personal level, nor on the joint cultural project level. After the Gulf War Ilana returns to Europe where she is killed in a car accident.
Let’s go back to physics and to narratives. In her novel, Michal Govrin does indeed present the main narratives competing for seniority in the Jewish-Israeli existential context: the Zionist-Israeli, the Diaspora-Jew, and the Palestinian. The representatives of these narratives, together with many other secondary characters, are in constant movement from one place to another. Settling in a defined spot in the “arena of narratives”, be it a geographical point or a philosophical-temporal point, might take away something from their essence; diminish their vitality and their self-awareness. Ilana, who is not planted like a tree (“Ilan” means tree), Said, who is not happy (“Said” means happy) and Alain (an artificial name for a holocaust survivor) move between yearnings that materialize in various times and places, never to achieve a satisfactory solution. Said is supposed to stage a theatrical performance, Ilana is supposed to build a hut: is it possible to imagine a greater double-temporariness? And the greater the temporariness, the greater the failure.
Govrin makes the narratives confront each other at all possible combinations: Independence War/ Naqba, Naqba/holocaust, and, of course, she uses the Gulf war and the Intifada as laboratories to examine the narratives on the two sides of the fence. Two laboratories, which are, at times, one. Here and there things become slightly didactic, almost a lecture, but Govrin usually knows how to avoid the trap.
Technically she has solved the “novel problem” in a natural way that serves both the presentation of things and the direction in which she wishes to take the readers. By “novel problem” I mean that the novel presents a challenge to any serious writer who wishes to join the literary dynasty and add to it without boring his readers, but also without using unnecessary jugglery, maintain respect for the traditional novel, and suit the structure to the content.
Michal Govrin is aware of the problem and she solves it with simplicity: Snapshots is written in fragments, allowing itself to move between different consciousnesses, times and places. The book includes illustrations and sketches, the fonts and the letter sizes vary. Above all: Govrin does not exhaust us with endless descriptions. She moves constantly, like the characters, like the plot, like the main argument. We must remember that a novel is a literary work and as such it is nothing but an illusionary representation of a reality, which the reader is supposed to accept comfortably. This is the correct border for those who side with post-modernism in literature, and Govrin knows how to avoid being swept by fanaticism in writing.
And where do things lead in Snapshots? To a very interesting solution. Remaining loyal to the physics model I propose to call the way Govrin offers us “The Quantum Way”. The term “The Third Way”, has been “burnt” both here and in Europe, and anyway, it does not define exactly what Govrin offers in the face of all those narratives crashing into each other, heading, perhaps, towards a final explosion. Govrin’s “Quantum Way” means that all the narratives will continue to exist, but in a looser way. There will be a price to pay. On the Israeli side, power-oriented elements will step down, making room for practical Jewish wisdom, for the classic Jewish ability to see both sides. The different communities will not insist on possessing, on holding both sides at all costs, on merging with the holy substance (that substance that fills Ehud Barak’s “holy basin”). Exclusivity will be replaced by a dialectic of affinity, and instead of love for possession, penetration and total fulfillment, we will hold on to the stories and, somewhat, let go of the material.
Indeed, theatre and a temporary Succah instead of final construction, division, banishment and expulsion. Belonging as well as being an outsider, being inside without being erased, taking in yet not at the expense of other stories, other places and affinities. Perhaps this is a Jerusalem/Al-Quds dream. Meanwhile, Yossi Beilin has started his campaign, and Michal Govrin has managed to weave a wide and extremely important philosophical and emotional work of art.