You know, Sigmund Freud was a very clever man but (…) he made a mistake. The three levels of awareness do not exist within us. Not at all! They exist in the space between the other and us, in the distance between our mouth and the ear of those who listen to our story. In addition, if there is no one listening, then the story does not exist. If there is no one, to reveal secrets to, to emulate and console, then talk to the electronic secretary, Michael. It’s important to talk to someone. Otherwise, all alone, we do not even know where we are and we are condemned to grope in the dark, in the main entrance, looking for the light switch.
One can hold the entire work of Eshkol Nevo in this sentence, like a poetical manifesto: his colloquial style, his ability to make characters talk, his delicate verbal invention, the psychoanalytical foundations, and the narrative architecture. Above all, one realizes there is a story that must be told, and there must be someone on both sides of the story.
The biography of Eshkol Nevo (Jerusalem, 1971) is not particularly exciting; it follows the path of the successful Western middle class writer. He studied in his country and in the USA, he’s got a degree in psychology, worked as copy in an agency, then abandoned it when he became popular thanks to his novels (five so far), collateral projects (a collection of stories, a book for kids, an essay, a movie), creative writing lessons. One could say that the most important element of his life is not in his life itself, but that of his grandfather’s: Levi Eshkol, the third Israeli Prime Minister, who worked with Ben Gurion (though in a small and young country like that, who does not have a father of the country in the family ?).
Nevo’s books have been translated a bit everywhere in Europe, including Germany, and even in the Arab World. But if I am not wrong, Italy is the only country where they have all been published. In the following passage, we will start from the three most important ones: the first, the last, and his undoubtedly masterpiece.
Eshkol Nevo, Nostalgia (Homesick), 2004, Neri Pozza, translation by Elena Loewnenthal and review by Raffaella Scardi
Eshkol Nevo, Neuland (Neuland), 2011, Neri Pozza, translated by Ofra Bannet and Raffaella Scardi
Eshkol Nevo, Tre Piani (Three floors up), 2017, Neri Pozza, translation of Ofra Bannet and Raffaella Scardi
First of all, it must be said that Nevo is an outstanding narrator, a genius. Here’s how he ravishes you with the incipit in Three stories:
What I’m trying to tell you is that, besides the surprise, there was another matter Ayelet and I did not dare to talk about-the fact that we somehow knew – I should say I knew – that it could happen. The signals had always been there, but I preferred to ignore them. How convenient, a couple of neighbours who babysit your baby. Think about it.
Help. You can only follow him, with butterflies in your stomach, until you know how it went (and he cleverly procrastinates it till the end, and beyond)? But it must be added that his wisdom is not just technique, it is not just narrative tricks. The main feature of his way of telling is the almost exclusive use of the first person. But it changes, it moves from character to character. Already perfectly developed in Homesick, it reaches vertiginous levels in Neuland, an epic story of over six hundred pages in which not only the main characters take the floor, but also the supporting ones, almost all those who rock the scene hold the microphone in their hand at least once. It is necessary to insist: it is not just a matter of technique – albeit prodigious, since passages from one voice to another are very fast, and having the necessity to draw the ranks of the story in a comprehensible, I would rather say engaging way. Eshkol Nevo’s human capacity to get inside other people’s point of view is evident. Moreover to take on his shoulder the burden of experiences and feelings which are far away from his own experience (it has nothing to do with it but he reminded me of another champion of empathy, that David Leavitt appearing in his first tales: a twenty-year-old boy who does make you feel like a sixty-year-old woman with cancer). Alternating voices fade away in Three stories, where walking in someone else shoes takes a more linear order, even with good flashes: two narrators are women (whatever you say, it is very hard. It is easy to say: Madame Bovary c’est moi, if you are Flaubert! The truth is, “Madame Bovary is you,” as Ricardo Piglia’s main character in Respiración artificial.) The third voice is a male one, actually that of a macho man, and it will be discovered little by little, and even here the identification was not immediate.
Generally talking Nevo is able to create not only an identification between himself and the character, but also between the character and reader, which is his ultimate goal. Success also depends on a generational factor. Nevo was born in 1971, we would still say he is a young man. He belongs, however, to the generation following the Holy Trinity one: Yeoshua-Grossman-Oz. We can figure him and his young main characters out doing the same things we did, children of the western middle class: easy taking university studies, often in cities far from ours; backpack travellers, InterRail or hitchhiking, cocooned adventures; the taste for certain readings and music, attracted by introspection, psychedelia, magic mushrooms; dreaming that something or anything could change sooner or later… Actually, this is a healthy identification, which allows us to take the plunge that separates us, luckily, from a particular Jewish-Israeli reality that is light years away from our daily one: is there anyone among us whose family has been deported on a gated doors train? Is there among us anyone who has been recalled by the military service after serving the country for three compulsory years and got caught in tank which burst into flames?
This leads us towards another dichotomy within Nevo’s work moves: the one between great History and small stories. It’s not just for his heroic grandfather, who he has never known: it’s the Israeli History and stories that makes it inevitable. But the writer succeeds in superimposing the two levels in a marvellous way, until they coincide without History becoming a metaphor, without stories becoming a pretext to pontificate about politics. Neuland is the story of, among other things, a son who travels around South America in search of his father, who went mad because of a post-war trauma bursting with thirty years of delay, and left. When Dori finally finds him, in Argentina, he discovers that he founded a colony there, a mini-dissociative -utopia (Altneuland, old-new-earth, was written by Theodor Herzl in 1902, the mythical foundation of Zionism).
“… I forgot Jerusalem and remembered Yehuda Ha’Levi’ words: Zion is in the place where peace and tranquility reign.”His father gave him the book, but Dori did not take it. As far as I remember, he replied, Zion is in a very precise place. Oy, Doriño, this is not the point.Then explain it to me, he asked, and thought, “I am a father, stop call me Doriño.
A country can not exist just to survive, Doriño. The original purpose for which Israel was founded was to gather Jews from the diaspora in a place where they would have not been persecuted. That was the purpose. In the past time. A country needs a vision. A country without vision is like a family without love. If there is no love, what to keep the family for?
So where do you want to go? What is the relationship with Neuland? Dori began to lose his patience. He was annoyed his father started again to talk to him as a guru does to his followers, and what irritated him the most was that though he did not show a pinch of interest towards his family, he used the family as a metaphor –Neuland will be the memento, he said. The Athens memento that the Jewish state should have been, had it not become Sparta.
That’s the way millennium tragedies and small family drama weave, nothing is out of place. Actually Neuland is paradigmatic of this and of other aspects: Nevo’s surgical precision to sink into parent-child relationships, as in the couple’s, is something painful, almost Bergmanian. Then there is the matter of traveling, moving out of Israel: as noted by the young critic Omri Herzog, in the classical Israeli literature it is considered a cliché, a moment to go back to the warm womb of the homeland; Eshkol Nevo mercilessly cuts the cord.
Nevo shows two faces of the same coin: tradition and innovation. On the one hand, as we have just seen, breaking patterns: multi-voiced inventions, linguistic experiments, incredible temporal shift (always in Neuland), subtle labyrinths. On the other hand, there is almost a classical solidity, a never ending trust that reality exists and that it can be recalled: a nineteenth century attitude, I would say. The images of various characters that populate Nostalgia and Neuland remind me of Balzac; and Neuland, shortly saying, is the story of a love the main characters did not live: for six hundred and forty pages, would you believe that?
Example of linguistic experimentation. Nevo’s phrasing, which is usually very flat, colloquial, close to speech or rather though, sometimes flares up to rhythmic, almost poetic cadences. It rarely happens, without notice, but it’s nice (and the translators are good):
These are days of fear. Lebanon begins to plummet. There are no passengers at Ben Gurion Airport. Frozen agricultural projects, cucumbers are desperate. Abu Dhabi decides to stop the relationship (no, Abu Dhabi, do not abandon us). Jerusalem celebrates three thousand years, but the guests are missing. Dressed up politicians would want elections, but no date, they did not agree. A couple of Jordanians who called their son Rabin escaped to Israel to run from the crowd’s fury in their own country. Madness and violence among old and exploited people. Children dream of attacks during the night. Above the bridge of Mevasseret the white cloud of a thought stands: for a moment we believed that peace would really come.
Example of invisible labyrinth. Three Floors Up: the latest issued seems to be more trivial, almost a step back. It looks like the classic novel of short stories, indeed three stories linked together by the fact they are set in the same palace. But the more you go on, the more you discover secret correspondences, echoes, suggestions, leitmotiv. More than three stories that weave and complete each other, it looks like the same story which is told in three different ways (and I do not want to add anything else).
And in the end the question we are all waiting for. And the…? The Palestinian conflict. The dichotomy between removal and catharsis, between taboos and its infraction is both external and internal in Nevo’s work. I’ll make it clear. It is the same writer to state http://ajwnews.com/voices-from-an-israeli-town/: “The Palestinian version of the conflict is a real taboo in Israeli society.” He says that students study Homesick for the final high school exam and they learn the Palestinian point of view; then they go to the history books and they find a hole, a censorship. In Homesick he tells the story of a Palestinian who lived in the house where the main characters live, and from which his family was driven out when the settlers took it (that’s the way it goes). The man would go back, to look for something belonging his mother: scandal, wounds, controversy and screams every time Nevo speaks in public. Yet removal is part of his works. Throughout Neuland, for instance, he uses the word “Palestinian” once. The same with the word “Arabs”, which appears almost by mistake. In Three stories, the expression “two druses” is used only referring to a sexual abuse.
That’s an indicative fact of how much a critical voice, a writer who simply talks about Israel’s failure, can consciously or not pass over the Palestinian conflict – a matter that has been ordinary life for seventy years so far – and describe that failure as something which concern just Israel. That’s an indicative fact of how much we expect to read, to find, in the next masterpieces of Eshkol Nevo.
Dario De Marco
Translation in English by Elvira Raimondi