Michal Govrin, Snapshots, Am Oved Publishers
Utopia’s Double Life
by: Yohai Oppenheimer
Ha’aretz, Daily Newspaper, June 5, 2002
Michal Govrin’s new book joins Smadar Hartzfeld’s novel Inat Omri, 1994, and Ronit Matalon’s novel Sarah, Sarah, 2000, which focus on a love affair between a Jewish, Israeli heroine and a Palestinian man. Ilana, the narrator, and the central character in Govrin’s novel, is the daughter of a pioneering Zionist who came to Israel at the beginning of the 20th century. Her juvenile rebellion against her father, the ardent Zionist, led her to join, after the Six Days War, the extreme left movement “Matzpen” (compass). Later she left the country and lived, for many years, in Paris, where she designed houses for refugees and foreign workers. Her precarious marriage to Alain, a French Jew, holocaust survivor historian who researches the holocaust, did not prevent her from developing parallel relationships with both Said - the director of a Palestinian theatre company, who was born in Silwan village, near Jerusalem, and lives most of the time in Amsterdam - and Claude, her Flemish friend. Before the outbreak of the Gulf War Ilana decides to take her two sons and go to live in Jerusalem, where she spends the war months. When the war ends she returns to France. While driving at night on the highway between Germany and France she dies in a car accident.
This life story of oedipal rebellion with an added political-cultural dimension, does not, in itself, consist a novelty, nor does the attraction to the Arab, which can be found in Hebrew literature since the beginning of the twentieth century. In his book, “The Colonial Passion”, Robert Young mentions that many English and American writers, both in the past and in the present, have been writing obsessively about the crossing of borders and of identities - be they of class, gender, culture or race – and about the wish to merge with the other’s culture. This “immigration”, he claims, is the expression of a colonial fantasy, which has always accompanied the actual colonialism. Michal Govrin’s book, however, replaces this fantasy with a new starting point not just for the criticism of the Zionist ideology but first and foremost for the criticism of the concept of nationality and its affinity to territory.
Most of the writers who, in the past, confronted the possibility that a love relationship between a Jewish woman and an Arab man will succeed in suspending the political conflicts which have been forced upon them, created a story about the failure of this love, which was also the failure of freedom of choice and of the establishment of an individual identity, thus acknowledging of the power of national order, and of unshakable stereotypes. In this context I can mention Amos Oz’s short story Nomads and a Viper (1962), and A.B. Yehoshua’s The Lover (1977), which confirm the validity of the national border by foiling any attempt to cross it. Even Sami Michael’s novel Protection (1977), which is based on the true stories of mixed couples who live in the margins of the Jewish and the Arab society in Haifa during the 1970’s, points out the limits of the identification with the national other, the psycho-cultural mechanisms which turn him into an enemy, and the accelerated appearance, in times of war, of national symbols that estrange these families and drive each character to adopt a different national stand.
Michal Govrin successfully manages to avoid using this familiar pattern of a love story as a central plot line. The attraction between Ilana and Said gains, from the start, an added dimension: they are both involved in a joint project in Jerusalem - a performance of the Al-Quds Theatre Company, directed by Said, and the architectural design of the site, in the form of a temporary Succah (hut), done by Ilana. This added dimension enables the analogy between the erotic failure (Said avoids Ilana’s desperate wooing) and the failure of the cultural dialogue (his company cancels its performance in Jerusalem because of the Gulf War, though it is clear that they were never interested in the collaboration from the start). In that sense Ilana represents yet another “enlightened” Israeli attempt to find a common denominator between Israelis and Palestinians, which in turn finds the other side captive in its uncompromising nationalism.
All the central figures in the novel are attached to something that has been lost. This Freudian concept of melancholy can, at this crucial point, clarify the fact that the adult lives of the characters are marked by unsatisfactory substitutes for the primal object they have lost. Ilana has lost her father, and the text is presented as a confession written to the father in the second person, a kind of conversation that is meant to numb the absence trauma. It is also clear that the erotic relations with various casual and less casual lovers serve to preserve the oedipal attraction to the father, as an imaginary wish which is not entirely repressed: “and you, in the dream (…) I lie without moving. So you won’t know that I am awake. And so the one lying next to me will not notice you standing there. And I saturate, silently, your image coming closer, lifting the cover, leading your gaze along my naked body, and then, carefully lying next to me”.
In a similar way, she describes Alain, that “citizen of erased places”, who constantly travels between libraries and archives that deal with Jews who were exterminated in the holocaust - and Said, whose constant wandering around the capitals of the world can be understood on the background of a similar erasing: “Understand that every time I sit on a bus to Tel-Aviv, I have, in my head a map that has been erased. I pass Lod, Ramlah, Beit-Leed, and my heart is torn by pain”. Though his choice of a theatrical expression - a clown’s mask which pretends innocence in order to cover up his pranks - is totally different from Alain’s choice of historical research, or from Ilana’s choice to re-read her father’s writings and conduct a live dialogue with them -the three characters set the obsessive preoccupation with the “architecture of the past” at the center of the plot.
This wandering, which is forced upon the characters, also serves as the basis for the presentation of the different narratives next to each other, representing contradicting perspectives: the father’s Zionist narrative, Said’s Palestinian narrative and Alain’s Jewish-European narrative. Since the narrator does not wish to decide between them but rather to point out their relativity, she confronts, for example, her father’s memory of the Israeli Independence War with the Naqba memory of Ali, Said’s friend; the Palestinian position regarding the Gulf War with the American or the European position; Said’s perception of the Arab villages that were erased during the Israeli Independence war with Alain’s perception of the Jewish villages in Eastern Europe whose entire population was destroyed. This novel sharpens the readers’ sensitivity, pointing out that not only do different ideologies stem from relative and contradictory interests, but the representations of reality (especially the live broadcasts of the television networks both of the events of the first Intifada and of the Gulf War) are not pieces of reality but simulations that obey decipherable ideological instructions. However, this post-modern awareness does not prevent the narrator from trying to construct an alternative reforming narrative, of a utopian nature, which is supposed to serve as a bridge of peace between contradictory national narratives.
Not only does Michal Govrin argue against the exclusivity of the Zionist culture, which cut off any other identity – Arab, Jewish, Diaspora – she also presents an interesting Jewish point of view. Re-reading ancient manuscripts, which discuss cultural-religious issues like Succah (hut) and Shmita (fallow year), she proposes a non-authoritative concept of territory, which she defines as “a revolution of the national concept”. It does not stem from severing the connection between the Jew and the land of Israel, but from viewing this affinity as belonging rather than possessing. The Shmita law is understood not only as a social law which regulates the possession of lands, but also as a conditional and dialectic way of belonging to the land: “Every seven years, during fallow year, one is required to tear down the fences surrounding the estate, and let everyone enjoy its fruit. The poor, the neighbor, the foreigner, even the animals… let go of possession… I found in the Gemara an amazing commentary: the seventy years of Babylon exile were punishment for seventy years of Shmita that the people had not observe since coming to the land! You cannot live on the land without letting it go, without opening your hand”.
The political relevance of this Talmudic attitude to the national problem of the year 2002 is obvious. Beyond that we find here an “insolent” utopia - which suspends the unequivocal contradiction between exile and territorial possession, a contradiction that has served as a base for the Zionist ideology - and forms a new concept of belonging that includes a partial, relative exile. By defining this utopia as “an unnatural relationship” between a nation and a country, Govrin separates it from “a love for the country saturated in paganism and German romanticism”, which we generally view as natural and acceptable, and which is translated into slogans like Jewish ancestral right or Palestinian “Tzumud” (attachment). The planned utopian architectural project will set a monument of peace at the heart of the conflict, in Jerusalem. The monument is an anti-monument – huts that represent a temporary presence rather than a permanent one. “Leaving all those who demand possession with their tongues hanging out”.
This Jewish utopia, which tried to normalize the Diaspora existence at the time of the Second Temple, appears in the novel as a modern attempt to normalize the melancholic state, which forces the characters to wander aimlessly, and to render it with meaning. It is also a failing attempt to find a common ideological language with the Palestinian characters in the form of a mutual renouncement of possession demanding nationalism. However, the erotic failure and the cultural failure stem from the inability to establish the dialogue between the Israeli left and its Palestinian partners on a basis of reciprocity, and certainly not on the basis of the renouncement of absolute national demands. If the national Israeli consciousness has reached a stage of exhaustion from the territorial conflict, the Palestinian nationalism, described in this book, is still at its formulation stage, the stage of pain over loss and the inability to accept that loss.
The attempt to go beyond the typical love affair between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian results in a less conflictual concept of nationalism which is aware of its utopic nature and of the impossibility of its implementation in our region’s non-compromising reality. An attentive reading will discover the tension, rather than the acceptance, between this intellectual utopia and the constant quest for the lost fatherland, or in Ilana’s case, the quest for the lost father. The father’s writings replace his living voice and create, through an insemination process, the daughter’s text. She can let go of the Israeli territory, and live partly in Paris and partly in Jerusalem, but she cannot let go of the fatherly territory. Its internalization (or the “Tzumud”, in territorial terms) seep into the narrator’s thoughts, expressions and erotic imagination. The power of the novel lies, to my mind, in that contradiction between the utopian idea and the obsessive refusal to renounce the homeland or share it with others. Behind every utopia lie other, undeclared lives for whom the utopia serves as a cover.
This utopia also relates to the structure of the novel. The choice of a fragmented structure, a series of snapshots, as well as the separation of the text into different levels or subjects which are printed in different fonts and sizes, does not cover up the existence of a prominent chronological structure in the text or of the stability of the narrator and the other characters who do not crumble down despite their complexity. The analogy between the diverse plots also creates a crystallized, coherent effect. In other words, the scattered, unruly, supposedly anarchic structure turns out to be a camouflage for a realistic style, fluent and easy to read, arranged around the narrator’s world which gradually reveals itself to the reader.
The snapshot effect is experienced mainly in those fragments that seem to photograph a place, and especially the narrator’s movement in through big cities (Paris and New-York). Instead of a laden, detailed description, which positions the eye and the consciousness in the center, Govrin chooses to minimize the obvious presence of the self and concentrate on the eye: “Bridges in the horizon, railways. Freight trains, green, blue, black, rusty red freight cars. Even a silver lake, surrounded by reed canes, fluttering a reflection of the sky”. The French nouveau roman, especially Alain Robbe-Grillet’s style (in “Envy”, for example), has already clarified the difficulty of totally separating the eye from the observing “I” (self). Govrin does not pretend to have a supposedly neutral lens. The self in her novel, however, does not hide the place it passes by (the self is usually in motion), and the impression created by the accidental encounter between the eye and the “I” is always very subtle and joins - like in that reflection image - the different impressions into a clear vision, endowed with depth rather than with a mere surface. Here too we find the unified, susceptible deep structure under the seemingly anarchic surface.
The urban images - which are dispersed through solid material, noise and the burdening proximity of objects - repeatedly retreat (and are almost saved) into the twinkling light. It should be mentioned that the presence of the narrator in Jerusalem during the Gulf War is not accompanied by that outsider’s eye, which emphasizes her acute foreignness. The few Jerusalem images become miniature stories that do not always separate between the sights and the autobiographic or historic horizon where the pictures are set. To remain a foreigner, an outsider, but at the same time at home –this is the polarity that characterizes these descriptions.
Snapshots is an important book because its attempt to talk about the national conflict from a new perspective is sensitive to the emotional-ideological complexity of the polarity between melancholy and utopia where that one-sided dialogue between the peace camp and the imaginary, almost unreal Palestinian, takes place. This is a dialogue that the Israeli must conduct in order to feed the illusion that there is something to talk about and some one to talk to. Nowadays, when it seems as though the Oslo agreements never existed, one can read the description of the Gulf War period as a permanent reality, one that has been with us always. However, beyond the “importance” of the novel, it is obvious to me that it is a literary achievement, both in the presentation of interesting characters and believable relationships, and in the creation of the small scene in a form that is completely free of any chatter or exaggeration. Michal Govrin, who started her literary career as a poet, finds, within the framework of the novel, the subtle and polished expression that is close to what Baudelaire called “small poems in prose”. Indeed, a great poem in prose.