I have absolutely no idea why I put this work to one side when it arrived on my doorstep in February this year. Maybe the blurb on the back cover talking about “Jewish diaspora”, and “Hitler” simply didn’t appeal right then, maybe I was simply snowed under. I can tell you that I am disappointed in myself for not picking this book up earlier, it is the highlight of my Women In Translation Month this year.
To make things easier, I’ll start with the plot, our narrator, Elinor, is a writer, and she writes a newspaper column from the viewpoint of the fictional Alice (from Alaska), her column focuses on Jerusalem, everything through the eyes of somebody who is awestruck, she came here to paint the light. All the sordid details are left aside as Alice wonders at her colourful, rich surroundings.
Elinor had a tough upbringing, living in a hotel with her prescription drug addicted mother, her ineffectual father and her older sister Elisheva, but more on her later.
Very early on, as a reader we start to question ourselves, are we reading Elinor here or are we reading Alice?
My pigtail-sucking Alice is a perfect idiot and a chronic faker. She isn’t capable of producing a single straightforward sentence, and her description of my childhood is, of course, completely false. That’s what she’s like, that’s how I created her, and I take full responsibility for her falsifications and for the small pleasures they afforded me.
But what about my own account? Is it truer? More reliable? Was my childhood really as grim as I describe it? Were the no moments of grace in it? No dewy lawns of happiness?
But back to the plot, Elinor is contacted by her Uncle Aaron Gotthilf, as he is coming to visit Jerusalem to apologise for his controversial book “Hitler, First Person”. A work where he attempted to inhabit the mind of Hitler, a work he wrote whilst staying with Elinor, her mother, father and sister at their hotel when our narrator was a child, a time when Aaron continually raped Elinor’s older sister Elisheva.
Elinor decides that she must visit her sister in the USA to warn her that Gotthilf has found her and may find her sister. Elinor and Elisheva are somewhat estranged but not after we learn of Elinor being the only family member to believe the rape stories and nursing her sister after a mental breakdown. So a visit to see her after all these years is going to open up a lot of old wounds. By the way, Elinor and her ideal husband Oded have to grown up children, who also live in the USA, time for a visit.
Two days before the flight, when I was downtown making final arrangements, I suddenly changed direction and completely cast off the illusion of the tourist vacation. In a last minute decision I went up to the men’s office, and after greeting the secretary, without waiting to hang up my coat – I slipped into the library.
When I left the house to do some last minute shopping for the trip, I had no idea that I was about to do an about-face, no such plan entered my mind, and only when I was standing in a children’s boutique to choose one more cute garment for my niece, I was suddenly overtaken by a recognition of what was really ahead of us. Suddenly I couldn’t stand the illusion of sweetness and light and the pretense. Things are not what they seem, and collaboration with deceivers is a crime.
I left the pile of sweet little dresses and blouses on the counter, and got ready to prepare myself – and perhaps also my husband – to confront reality. I had been cocooned enough, I had let him cocoon me enough, and I couldn’t carry on like this.
Elinor meets with her sister, hears of her tale towards “wellness” and it appears as though we are heading towards a nice happy ending… but are we?
We were already next to the care when four heads rose in unison at the sound of a screech in the sky. A flock of geese flew over us in an arrowhead formation, and pierced me with a superstitious dread that rose in a flash from my tailbone to the bottom of my skull. The wild geese flapped heavy wings, and their screeching seemed to announce some curse to come. One after the other they screeched above our heads. Flapping and flapping and emitting remote, obscure cries, like a distant witness. One tortured screech after the other, never together.
I won’t reveal any more of the plot for those who intend to read this book, however I will say that this is not a simple plot driven novel, we have many, many layers at play here. First off we have a main character who has invented a talented writer, how reliable is our narrator’s voice?
The next morning I was already able to tell him that he was making a big, if common, mistake in his reading of Lolita; that the book was pervaded by a consciousness of sin; that the utter ruin of Lolita is conveyed through an unreliable narrator, and that the reader together with Humbert Humbert are clearly aware of the fact that there is no restoration and atonement is impossible.
Early on in the book we start to question our unreliable narrator, in our case is atonement possible?
We also have the book “Hitler, First Person” which our narrator quickly reads and gives us a summation, she then reads it in detail and gives us further conclusions, as a reader you know there is no such book, but you cannot help to go along with our narrator’s telling of this fictional fiction. Is author of “Hitler, First Person” an unreliable voice? We know he is a monster, is there a parallel to Lolita? So many questions, so many layers, so many things to have you mind racing as you devour this masterful construction of a book.
We also have red-herrings, or are they actual prophecies? “Hitler, First Person” concludes with “with a reference to the sun” will our book have a similar conclusion? Aaron Gotthilf becomes “the bottom dweller”, “first person” and a raft of other names as our story unfolds, is there a theme here as he slowly becomes a non-person?
As a reader you become complicit in Elinor’s tale and her actions, you then begin to question your own moral stand point, am I all of a sudden becoming a “bottom dweller”?
This is an absolute gem of a book, although written in a simple journalistic style (Gail Hareven’s creation does write for newspapers) there are so many levels that his book plays on. In my opinion an absolute moral to make the Best Translated Book Award lists for 2016.