Israeli novelist Gail Hareven has written 11 books, one of which received Israel’s highest literary honor, the Sapir Prize. Yet like most Israeli writers, even the most popular, she remains little known in the United States: Lies, First Person, her newly translated novel, is only the second of her books to appear in English, after The Confessions of Noa Weber, which appeared here in 2009. Both books are tales of obsession; but while Confessions deals with a romantic and sexual fixation, Lies broadens into something stranger and more resonant. For the things that obsess Elinor Brandeis, the narrator, are at once utterly personal and deeply rooted in Jewish history and identity: the nature of trauma, the memory of injustice, and the desperate need to find a sense of safety in a dangerous world.
As the book opens, Elinor seems to enjoy a serene middle-class existence, which she herself describes as a Garden of Eden. A middle-aged mother of two grown sons, she is relaxing on Shabbat afternoon with her beloved husband Oded, in the garden of their Jerusalem home, smoking a joint and drinking wine. “The golden Sabbath time stretches out around us without a point of reference—perhaps it’s morning now, perhaps it’s twilight—people whose lives are as good as ours don’t need points of reference,” she boasts ironically.
This happiness is all the sweeter for being hard-won; for as Elinor soon confides, her childhood was a chaotic and miserable one. Along with her older sister Elisheva, Elinor, whose maiden name was Gotthilf, grew up in a ramshackle Jerusalem hotel operated by her parents, charismatic bohemians who never had much time for their children. To an outside observer, there might seem to be something charming about life in the pension, with its dirt and chaos and its rotating crew of artistic residents. Indeed, Elinor herself is tempted to idealize the setting. She is the author of a newspaper column about a girl named Alice who goes around Jerusalem having whimsical adventures, and she is always aware of how the world would look through her alter ego’s innocent eyes. “Disgust is a cunning infiltrator; it’s hard to keep its stealthy invasions at bay, and sometimes you have to recruit guards to protect you from them,” Elinor reflects. “The guardian of my soul against disgust was the idiotic Alice.”
By dividing her narrator’s consciousness in this way, between the naive Alice and the suspicious Elinor, Hareven renders her unreliable as a guide to the past. If Alice sees things too generously, we begin to wonder, does Elinor herself see things too unforgivingly? For the reader soon picks up on the fact that Elinor is motivated in her descriptions of the past by a deep sense of grievance. In her eyes, her parents were feckless narcissists: “Convenient to ignore the fact that one little daughter in a fancy dress hasn’t been bathed for two weeks, and the other, suffering daughter has been left to act as a servant in the house, crawling on all fours to gather up the muck of wet, used tissues.”
It was this negligence, Elinor implies, that opened the door for the nightmare that defined and shattered her childhood. When she and her sister were teenagers, a relative came to visit—the glamorous American intellectual Aaron Gotthilf, her father’s cousin. Aaron was supposed to be at work on a controversial book about the Holocaust, and all day the sounds of typing came from his private room. Not until later did Elinor discover that, during these sessions, Aaron was actually molesting Elisheva, in ways that are rendered all the more disturbing by Hareven’s refusal to describe them in detail. All we learn are scraps: that Aaron read the works of the Marquis de Sade to the girl while abusing her; that he forced her to bend over like a footstool while he rested his shoes on her.
When Elisheva finally reveals the abuse, her family is disintegrated by the burden of guilt and horror. Her mother, always sickly, dies of a heart condition, which Elinor is convinced is a cover story for suicide, deliberately induced by taking a dangerous medication. Her father flees to Italy, where he tries to start a new life without memories of the past. It is left to the college-age Elinor to care for her sister, but their lives together quickly descend into a folie à deux, as Elisheva falls prey to psychotic delusions:
But then, gradually, she stopped going out of the house, and her reasons grew weirder and weirder: People could see through her. The day was too fine. The light was too bright, everything was like glass, and through glass people could see everything. Didn’t I understand? There were types. Like colors. Luckily I, her sister, was made of blue, because blue was the outside, the outside was blue and you didn’t notice blue against the blue.
Finally, Elinor rescued herself by having Elisheva committed to a mental hospital. This is her deepest burden of guilt—that in the end she too abandoned her sister, just like their parents. She fell into the arms of Oded and of his secure, supportive parents, who became her new surrogate family, and for 20 years she has inhabited this safe bubble, seemingly defended against the demons from her past.
All this, however, is merely the backstory in Lies, First Person, imparted to the reader in the first 50 pages. The true action begins when the carefully constructed Garden of Eden in which the adult Elinor lives opens up to admit a serpent. One Shabbat afternoon her cellphone rings, and the voice on the other end belongs to Aaron Gotthilf: He is coming to Jerusalem for a scholarly conference and he wants to meet her. The evil of her childhood, Elinor is forcibly reminded, is not something left behind in the past; it continues to roam the world, unpunished. And this realization is what starts Elinor down the path of a growing obsession, until finally she decides that it is intolerable to live in the same world with Aaron. The city itself seems tainted with his infection:
Jerusalem became filthy. The pouring rain had brought the trash to the surface. And I … went on walking, on dug-up pavements filled with water and sludge, between wet piles of building debris. … A curtain of murky mist was coming down and covering everything. Discordant neighs of laughter and an affectation of vivacious chatter greeted my ears at every function I forced myself to attend. And the artificiality and pretense and the lies and concealment in all this forced gaiety was almost unbearable. It occurred to me that the authorities had introduced some drug of deception into the city’s drinking water.
If this story were being told by an American novelist, it might remain on the level of a psychological case study. But Hareven guides Lies, First Person onto the plane of allegory, by giving it a specifically Jewish symbolic dimension. Aaron Gotthilf, it turns out, is not just a villain in Elinor’s eyes. He is a figure of loathing in the broader Jewish community, because of a book he wrote—the very book he was working on during that summer in the family hotel. This book, Hitler, First Person, was a literary attempt to fathom the secret of Hitler’s evil by entering into his imaginative life—by using him as a narrator. Such an attempt brought down on Gotthilf a firestorm of criticism, and one Holocaust survivor even tried to throw acid in his face. When Elinor herself reads the book, she is left speechless with horror: The evil that Aaron tried to conjure in print seems all too consonant with the evil he did in real life.
Indeed, Hareven suggests that somehow the two evils are linked. The abuse of the young Elisheva was, in some horrible sense, Aaron’s research: He was trying to evoke in himself the same kind of dehumanizing hatred that allowed Hitler to commit his crimes. In this way, the abuse of Elisheva comes to serve as a kind of local equivalent of the Holocaust. Every time a Jew suffers evil, Hareven suggests, he or she is initiated into the experience of the 6 million. This idea is subversive of the premise of the Jewish state, which is meant to protect Jews from such trauma. But the Holocaust, Hareven implies, penetrates every Garden of Eden. The very attempt to understand Hitler is a kind of curse that extends Hitler’s power.
Things become still more fraught when Elinor goes to visit her sister for the first time since they parted in Jerusalem decades earlier. Elisheva, it turns out, has beaten the odds and built a happy life for herself. She is married and has a child and the support of friends and a loving community. The catch is that the community is in rural Illinois, and Elisheva has entered it by becoming a pious evangelical Christian. She has even, at the behest of Jesus, managed to forgive Aaron for what he did to her, as she explains to Elinor in one of the book’s best scenes: “With time I understood that if God had forgiven me, that just as God forgives us, just as our savior Jesus was the sacrifice that atoned for our sins, the sacrifice that God demanded from me—was for me to forgive Aaron.”
Here Hareven conjures the old distinction between Judaism as a religion of law and Christianity as a religion of love. By becoming a Christian, Elisheva has transcended judgment and entered into the bliss of total acceptance. But this means that Elinor, who is still a Jew, is left in the realm of vengeance, of an eye for an eye. Indeed, it is after meeting with her sister, and taking in “the full horror of that act of pardon,” that Elinor becomes obsessed with the idea that Aaron must be punished.
The second half of the novel takes on a nightmarish, fateful atmosphere, as Elinor moves inexorably toward a final reckoning with Aaron. But it is precisely here, when Elinor’s conviction of her mission becomes total, that her reliability as a narrator crumbles. She is utterly convinced of the need to kill the guilty man, to mete out justice. But is her obsession truly with justice, or does it constitute its own variety of darkness, of evil? Is Lies, First Person itself a kind of equivalent of the book Aaron wrote, Hitler, First Person—a literary extenuation of a crime? Which sister has responded more justly to the evil Aaron represents, the “Christian” Elisheva or the “Jewish” Elinor?
These questions continue resonate after the book reaches its climax, and they implicate the reader no less than the narrator. For don’t we, in reading about Aaron, yearn for his punishment as well? The simple thirst for vengeance that drives so many crime thrillers becomes, in Hareven’s hands, the subject of a moral investigation that yields no clear answers. This is what gives Lies, First Person its haunting power and reveals Hareven as a novelist that American readers should embrace.
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