Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011...11:11 am

Voices from an Israeli town

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Novelist Eshkol Nevo achieved international fame with his ‘polyphonic’ novel, Homesick

By MORDECAI SPECKTOR

The weather in Ra’anana, Israel, is in the upper 60s this week, as Minnesota thaws out from the weekend snowstorm and treacherous icy roads.

Eshkol Nevo was at home in Ra’anana on Sunday, and asked for advice about what to wear when he visits the Twin Cities in December. I told him to bring a warm coat, a hat and gloves.

Nevo, 40, has emerged as one of Israel’s most popular novelists. His novel Homesick, first published in a 2004 Hebrew edition, has garnered critical acclaim and a number of prestigious awards in Israel and Europe. He also has published a collection of short stories and a previous novel, World Cup Wishes.

Culture Boulevard – The Israeli Author Series, which is co-sponsored by the Israel Center of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation and the Sabes JCC, will conclude with an appearance by Nevo 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1 at the JCC.

This window into the world of prominent Israeli writers previously featured novelists Ron Leshem and Meir Shalev.

Eshkol Nevo: Part of being a writer is seeing the other side. (Photo: Courtesy of Sabes JCC)Eshkol Nevo: Part of being a writer is seeing the other side. (Photo: Courtesy of Sabes JCC)

During a phone interview with the AJW on Sunday, Nevo said that Homesick delves below the surface of life in Israel, and probes the intersection between the personal and political spheres in “four different houses in a small town called Maoz Zion… on the way to Jerusalem.”

“In every house you have a conflict,” Nevo explains about the story, which is set in 1995, after the Rabin assassination. In one house, the family is becoming more religious; and the wife, representing the turn toward orthodoxy, is trying to decide whether to enroll her child in a religious kindergarten or a secular one. “This opens up a discussion about religion and belief, and religious institutions in Israel.”

In another house, Nevo continues, resides a Palestinian construction worker. He is working on a job site where his family once lived, prior to their dispossession during Israel’s War of Independence. “This opens up a discussion of the Nakba [the Arabic word for “castastrophe”] and the Palestinian narrative of ’48,” says Nevo.

And there is a house where a boy lives who mourns his brother killed in the 1982 Lebanon War; “and this opens up a discussion of the price of living in Israel.”

In interviews, Nevo refers to Homesick as a “polyphonic” novel, where the story is carried by varied voices. Asked about his literary influences, he demurs that his influences are eclectic and vary from book to book. Then he mentions the Amos Oz novel The Same Sea, which was an inspiration for Homesick, in terms of how the renowned author “walks on the thin line between prose and poetry.”

Other authors who employ the “polyphonic style,” according to Nevo, are William Faulkner, James Joyce and famed Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua, particularly in his book The Lover.

In addition to his busy life of writing and touring in support of his books, Nevo teaches creative writing at Tel Aviv University, Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Sapir College and the Open University of Israel.

Returning to the story in Homesick, Nevo’s use of a Palestinian character, who criticizes the society that supplanted his people, proved to be controversial in Israel.

The Palestinian narrative is “quite a taboo in Israeli society,” he says. However, Nevo points out that Homesick “is part of the final exam in literature in [Israeli public schools], so it’s kind of a funny situation. They learn the book, but when they go to history lessons, they can’t hear about the Palestinian narrative.”

Nevo touched a Jewish nerve with his Palestinian character. At his author appearances in Israel, there are always arguments, “people speaking out and sometimes even shouting,” he recalls. “Parts of Israeli society are not ready yet to listen to the narrative of the other side — but I don’t care. Part of being a writer is seeing the other side, and trying to give a voice to the ‘other,’ to the narrative that is not heard.”

In contrast, when Nevo tours Europe, he finds that Israel is demonized by many — the Jewish state is the ‘other.’

Homesick has been translated into a number of languages, including Arabic. In an interview with the PRI radio show The World last year, Nevo said that he wonders about his book’s distribution in Arab nations.

“I don’t have any new information,” regarding the disposition of his book in the Arab world, he responds; but Nevo mentions that Palestinians who read the British edition of Homesick have provided some feedback.

“Once in a while I have Israeli Arabs approaching me,” he comments, in reference to his new book, Neuland, which was recently published in a Hebrew edition. “But it’s quite rare. I never got any letters from Damascus or Cairo, yet.”

Neuland, which is set in South America, is about a son looking for his lost father and “Jewish wandering,” says Nevo, about the book whose title plays on Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel, Altneuland.

A review of Nevo’s Neuland in Haaretz last year noted that the novel concerns Israelis who probe their values and identity — “Israeli-ness” — in an exotic foreign land. Omri Herzog wrote: “This new expanse absorbs the victims of shell shock and of the violence of contemporary Israeli culture. There is where personal and national rehabilitation can take place; there is where a community of travelers and lost souls gathers, seeking an alternative in the spirit of ‘a light unto the nations’ as well as unto Israel. It is not a substitute for the State of Israel, but a kind of shadow community, from whose position one views the promised land and recalls the hope once placed in it, and its vision, which has clouded. This community returns what has been lost, and prepares hearts in order to make it possible to return to the old-new land — (Herzl’s) Altneuland — and save it.”

The new novel may find a publisher in the United Kingdom; but Nevo doesn’t know when an American edition might appear. “The American publishing market is quite tough,” he remarks.

And here’s a final biographical note on Eshkol Nevo: his grandfather was Levi Eshkol, Israel’s third prime minister.

His mother’s father died before he was born; so Nevo knows his illustrious grandfather only “through stories and memories of my mother” and the books written about him.

“It’s a pity,” Nevo comments, about never getting to know his grandfather personally. “Apart from being a very important leader, he seems like a very nice man, from the stories I hear… [with] a Yiddish sense of humor.”

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Eshkol Nevo will appear 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1 at the Sabes JCC, 4330 S. Cedar Lake Rd., St. Louis Park. Admission is $12, or $10 for students, seniors and JCC members. A light reception and book signing will follow the presentation. For information, call 952-381-3499 or go to: sabesjcc.org.

(American Jewish World, 11.25.11)

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