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Almost Dead, by Assaf Gavron, translated by Assaf Gavron and James Lever. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010. 336 pp. $14.99.
It is hard to imagine anything more fraught than an Israeli writing about Palestinian terror attacks from the dual perspectives of the victim and the perpetrator. Every narrative choice in such a project is saturated with political significance, faces intense scrutiny, and will certainly occasion howls of anger from one political camp or another. In the case of Assaf Gavron’s new novel, there will surely be sharp howls all around. Yet the literary merits of Almost Dead—its dark humor, furious pace, and sympathetic characters—humanize the conflict in a way that makes it difficult to dismiss.
The story begins in 2003, at the height of the second intifada, and Enoch—nicknamed the Croc—a 33-year-old salesman for Time’s Arrow, an Israeli high-tech start-up in Tel Aviv, boards a minibus headed for work. It will blow up soon after he steps off it. In a parallel narrative, Fahmi, a young Palestinian, lies comatose in an Israeli hospital. During the course of the novel, in the span of a year, the Croc will nearly be killed in four terror attacks in which Fahmi participated in some capacity. How and why the two men’s paths cross forms the novel’s narrative structure—as well as the core of its philosophical musings.
Croc and Fahmi narrate alternate chapters. Croc is neurotic, irreverent without being offensive, conflicted about his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, and secular; he is a man of seemingly few strong passions apart from his work. Time’s Arrow helps companies shave seconds off their customer transactions, the aggregated savings amounting to hefty profits. Indeed, Croc lives by Time’s Arrow principles, striving for the greatest time efficiency possible. Why all this anxiety to cram as much life into as little time as possible? On the one hand, Croc’s brushes with death lead him to question the heedless purposelessness of fast-paced secular Israeli life. On the other hand, after each terrorist attack the Croc realizes how a slightly different concatenation of space and time would have resulted in his death. Moreover, given the ever-present threat of death, grabbing for all the gusto you can is not necessarily irrational.
Croc expresses his perspective in a prose that reflects his personality: staccato, seemingly unable to focus on one thing for any length of time, and above all sardonic. Croc’s black humor is on full display after escaping death in the first attack: “According to Ynet there were ten Israelis killed and one suicide bomber. The result: 10-1. The Jews lose again, or at any rate it’s a scoreline that’s going to need quite a bit of positive gloss.”
Fahmi’s narration shifts between the present, in which he is imprisoned in his body in an Israeli hospital, unable to move or speak yet capable of hearing and thinking, and the past, in which he explains how he arrived at being a terrorist. The tone is solemn, as befits a young man who has appointed himself the bloody redeemer of his people. The story is unsurprising: his grandfather fought the Jews, the family was dispossessed in 1948 and moved to a refugee camp, and his older brother, Bilahl, who became radicalized in an Israeli prison, recruited Fahmi after their mother died because an inscrutable military edict prevented her from traveling to receive timely medical care.
Yet he is also deeply conflicted. Fahmi loves his father but is angry that he is more interested in his children’s education and safety than politics or resistance, has a tender regard for his younger sister, Lulu, respects but is not wholly subservient to Bilahl, and is in love with a young woman, Rana. And, like most of his generation, he is fascinated by the pop culture pumped into the narrow confines of his West Bank life by the ever-present mass media.
Some may argue that the narrative of Fahmi’s life and his journey toward terrorism are too self-justifying. Of course, this being Fahmi’s version of events, the author might have been tempted to let Fahmi proselytize. But Gavron elects to create a more complicated character, one that is completely plausible, both angry and ambivalent.
Despite misgivings, Fahmi is capable of decisive action, while for most of the novel Croc cannot summon a clear idea of what he feels or thinks. When the media finds out that he has escaped three terrorist attacks, Croc becomes a celebrity, making the rounds of TV and radio shows to spout banalities that, to his credit (or shame), he recognizes as such. Both sides in the polarized Israeli political arena seize on his words to buttress their views. “Every day I was approached by people I’d never talked to who knew what I needed, or who needed to know what I thought. Could I lend them my voice, my support, my opinion? It didn’t matter to them that, in most cases, I had no opinion.” Croc is an Israeli Chauncey Gardiner.
His hesitance and indecisiveness are maddening. Yet they also seem a genuinely plausible response to a situation of such complexity and pain, one resistant to pat solutions and one-sided pronouncements. There is also a refreshing openness to a character who can state the following: “The difference between me and Duchi [his girlfriend], in one sentence, is this: I say, things will be all right, and if they aren’t, that’s all right too. Duchi says, things will not be all right, and if they are, that’s not all right either. OK, two sentences.”
But is Croc’s optimism justified? Confronting the raw grief of the mother of a soldier killed while riding in Croc’s car during one attack, Croc “mumbled something about getting on with life and she didn’t like it. She said, ‘You’re wrong. You’re so wrong. You can’t get on with life. Not after losing a child. The grieving never ends.’” To the author’s credit, the novel does not contradict her.
The novel makes some missteps: a subplot involving a Russian nurse who falls in love with the comatose Fahmi feels forced, and another that brings Croc and Fahmi together relies on a too-easy vilification of a right-wing extremist. And some may object to the ending on aesthetic grounds (too predictable) while others will deride it on political ones (too unrealistically upbeat). But to get to that point Gavron has crafted a compulsively readable, bleakly funny thriller that covers a lot of ground—lampooning secular Israelis’ superficial distractions and cult of celebrity, blasting the country’s Manichean political discourse, and taking swipes at religious self-righteousness and closed-mindedness, both Muslim and Jewish—while offering a generous and humane portrait of his two tragically conjoined protagonists. It is an admirable achievement.
Central American Resource Center