Bliss tells the story of two thirty-five-year-old Israeli women called Sarah and Ofra, who live in Tel Aviv and have been best friends since they were eleven. Any fears that the book may be a familiar celebration of women’s friendships are overcome by the depth and unexpectedness of its insights and the wit and bite of its prose, especially the dialogue, which is extremely well translated. Ofra is the first-person narrator. She worships Sarah, but also disapproves of her, as well as sometimes taking on the role of her minder. They quarrel quite often and stop seeing each other, and then Ofra misses Sarah almost unbearably: “The foolish notion that I would be able to make do with myself paled next to the awful, nightmarish hunger [for Sarah’s company].”
In her gloomier moments, Ofra sees herself as the traditional lonely spinster, a mere chaperone to her friend, in spite of the fact that Ronit Matalon has given her quite an eventful life of her own, even with sex now and then. But Sarah is the heroine as well as the bad girl of the novel. She is wild, disorganized, ruthless, passionate, gifted, and idealistic. “She was obsessed with doing the right thing,” Ofra says in the opening sentence. Sarah also “savored words like a winemaker, letting them do their work, turning metaphor into reality with one daring leap, and forcefully ripping them from their ordinariness.” The description fits Matalon’s prose as well.
Not that Sarah is a writer. She becomes a photographer after writing her MA thesis on Emily Dickinson. Ofra’s thesis is on American Abstract Expressionism; she becomes a teacher of art history. The story begins in their childhood, but not with it: the text is divided into untitled, unnumbered chapters, and the chapters are divided into short and very short sections, which jump back and forth between Tel Aviv and Paris, and between different years from the mid-Eighties to the mid-Nineties. This restless arrangement produces a sense of tension and confusion: you need to adjust to a new scene every few paragraphs. But that is surely deliberate. Tension and confusion make up the atmosphere in which Sarah and Ofra live.
It hasn’t much to do with the situation in Israel, though of course that is always there in the background. Sarah is the only character with strong political feelings. Obsessed as she is with “doing the right thing,” she becomes committed to the peace movement and keeps going to Gaza in order to make a photographic record of Israeli soldiers “beating the crap out of [the Arabs].” With one exception, none of the other characters seem to be interested in Arab–Israeli relations at all. As for Ofra’s endearingly outspoken Egyptian-Jewish mother, she can’t stand the Israelis: “Don’t you know our people, Henri?” she says to her French brother-in-law. “They’re a very strange people, very strange. I can’t explain to you the nature of this people—stupid, full of hate. People full of hate for everything. Everything, Henri, I swear.”
Bliss begins near the end of its story: Sarah is seeing Ofra off at the airport in Tel Aviv. It is their first meeting in a year. Ofra is going to France for the funeral of her cousin Michel, who has died of AIDS. (His branch of the family lives in a suburb of Paris.) He would have lasted a few months longer if he hadn’t caught cat-scratch fever from his cat, Lilly. Lilly originally belonged to Sarah, who gave her to Michel on his last visit to Israel. The cat has an important part in the drama, and Matalon watches her every move and every mood as closely as an animal behaviorist might; and so sensuously that you can feel every hair in the creature’s fur. (“Her thick tail beats the hammock twice. I upturn it onto the mowed lawn. She drops to the ground like a sack and grudgingly opens her hazy eyes as a look of wonder extends over her face.”)
She writes in the same way about a child, carefully observing his behavior from the outside, without sentimentality, but with an irresistible physical delight in his appearance, in the texture of his skin and hair. The little boy belongs to Sarah and her husband Udi. He is called Mims (short for Emmanuel), and the reason Sarah parts with her beloved Lilly is that Udi thinks the cat could be a danger to Mims. Udi is seven years older than Sarah, the son of a high-ranking Israeli officer, and himself an army doctor. The very fact of his military connections would make him an unsuitable husband for Sarah, and he is. “Udi was not a man with desires, but he did desire Sarah, motivated more by the force of his own wanting and the joy of its discovery than by Sarah herself.” It is Sarah, though, who suggests they sleep together and immediately afterward decides to marry him—mainly, and quite implausibly, it seems, because he tells her that seven years was the age gap between the Russian poet Mandelstam and his wife Nadezhda, and they had a good marriage.
At the start of his own marriage, Udi “abdicated all responsibility. Back then, still captivated by her silly ‘mad artist’ act, he refused to feel that she was in any way insulting or degrading,” Ofra says. “I didn’t argue with him, although I was childishly tempted to show off a little. After all, she was my topic, my field of specialization, and I was an expert on every single aspect of her.”
Udi is too conventional for Sarah, and her bossiness intensifies his inclination to act like a macho officer. Besides, when Mims arrives, Udi makes it clear that he doesn’t think much of the way Sarah cares for the baby:
“You think I’m a lousy mother, I can see that perfectly well.”
“You’re wrong…. You’re the one who thinks that, Sarah, and sometimes I believe you.”
Matalon doesn’t make Udi out to be a monster. He is a devoted and efficient father. He is also intelligent and full of feeling, though he lacks sensitivity. The marriage is prickly. Sarah begins an affair with an Arab called Marwan whom she meets at an Israeli– Arab association. He is a drama student and works night shifts as a hotel receptionist. He is charming, years younger than she is (she calls him “the kid”), and he gets on better than anybody else with Mims.
Sarah becomes pregnant by him and has an abortion. The bleeding starts just as she and Udi are telling Mims (now five years old) that they are getting divorced. Marwan says he cannot forgive the abortion and leaves her. She begins to stalk him, hanging about outside every building he enters, invading his lodgings. He can bear it no longer and one night when he is drunk—so Sarah says—he beats her up. She takes refuge with a friend; he follows her, throws stones at the window, and shouts: “Why didn’t you keep the baby, you bitch?” before collapsing on the pavement. The police find him and beat him up.
But it also seems possible that the baby is Udi’s, and that he is the one who beat Sarah up. When Ofra asks her who did it, her answer is cryptic: “Someone who loves me very much.” But the person Marwan loves very much turns out not to be Sarah but Mims. During the preparations for the divorce, he turns up in the lawyer’s office and demands that the child spend one day of each week with him: “I deserve a day with the boy too,” he says to Sarah. “Between you and me it’s over, not between him and me.” “What’s odd,” Sarah tells Ofra at the airport, “is that he had no desire to keep his own child. He wore me down over it. He had no desire for what might perhaps have been his”—a curious statement since she had also described Marwan as being angry about her abortion. “Might perhaps” suggests no more than a good chance that Udi is the father. If Sarah doesn’t know for sure, the reader can’t either. Again this confusion may be deliberate, a sign of Sarah’s elusive, unreliable character. Full of openings that lead nowhere, the story is a tangle, perhaps even a mess.
The last section is the strangest of all. It begins in the house of Ofra’s uncle and aunt on the night of Michel’s funeral. His brother David comes into Ofra’s bedroom. She is half-naked after a shower and quite prepared—or resigned—to having sex. But in a very sexy scene all she gets is foreplay. David has to catch a dawn plane back to the States, where he works. He asks Ofra to drive him to the airport. But first he wants to get rid of Lilly, because his father hates the cat so much (he holds her responsible for Michel’s death) that sooner or later he will kill her. “It would tear him apart, though,” David says, sympathizing with his father rather than the cat. So they put her in the car trunk, tape it shut, and drive through the countryside until it’s time to go to the airport. Then they take Lilly out. She is still breathing. “What endurance” is all David says. They put her down by the roadside, then make for Charles de Gaulle, where Ofra drops her cousin off. When she arrives back at the house, the family are sitting at the kitchen table in their pajamas. They ask her where she’s been, and she asks them why they are all awake. “They’ve murdered your Rabin,” says Oncle Henri. And that is the last sentence in the book.
The announcement is a shock—as it was at the time for Israelis and for the rest of the world too. In the novel, though, the unexpectedness also springs from the fact that Rabin’s death has nothing whatever to do with the story or the people in it (though no doubt it would if the story were to continue). The unpredictability of events, phases, and relationships in every life (feline as well as human) could be the underlying theme of Matalon’s book. Bliss is an unsettled and unsettling novel, full of apparent non sequiturs. Nevertheless, sentence by sentence it is a gripping work, and a sophisticated one as well.
David Grossman’s novel is set a few years after Rabin’s murder, but Rabin gets mentioned in it too.”May his memory be blessed,” says an old Orthodox Greek nun. As in Bliss, though, the theme is neither politics nor Arab–Israeli relations. Someone to Run With is about drugs and love, and there is scarcely an Arab to be seen in its pages—which is surprising when we consider that Grossman, as well as being a novelist, is also a political journalist who has written about life in Arab villages in such books as The Yellow Wind and has spoken out strongly against the Sharon government.
Like Bliss, the novel is divided into separate (but much bigger) chunks. Many end in crucial, desperate, unresolved situations that are meant to leave the reader in tense expectation of the outcome—and they do. Two teenagers, eighteen-year-old Assaf and sixteen-year-old Tamar, take turns at being the hero or heroine of alternating narratives. They don’t know each other or even meet until a happy ending unites them. Relentlessly well-intentioned and upbeat, the book seems like a novel not just about teenagers, but for them—fourteen- to sixteen-year-olds rather than sixteen to eighteens. Except for a gang of drug dealers, most of the characters are brave, unselfish, generous, and charming. They tend to have sad histories and beautiful, expressive eyes. On top of that, Assaf and Tamar have enchanting smiles and a nice sense of humor. There are some horrific drug-related scenes and frightening ones involving thugs, but in the end the good characters overcome the bad.
At the start, Assaf’s parents are away in the States, and he is earning pocket money in Jerusalem’s City Hall during the school holidays. His supervisor brings in a lost dog—a bitch with beautiful, expressive eyes like almost everybody else in the novel—and he tells the boy to find her owner: dogs always head back to where they came from. This dog is on a long rope, and races off with Assaf on a convoluted journey through Jerusalem. The first stop is with the nun, a wise old hermit called Theodora who lives in a tower beside a Greek church. She has been confined there almost all her life by a vow forced on her when she was a twelve-year-old tomboy. She had to promise never to set foot outside. Perhaps that is why she is now an agnostic.
Theodora and the dog recognize each other. The dog, she says, is called Dinka and belongs to a girl, Tamar, who often comes to see her. They have become close friends and talk a lot about books. Theodora corresponds not only with prisoners and others in distress, but also with scholars and writers in different parts of the world. She is very well read and has a large collection of books in several languages. She adores The Wind in the Willows. She also adores Tamar: “Your heart flies up when she smiles,” she tells Assaf. “No, do not laugh, I never exaggerate—your heart leaves your body and flaps its wings.”
But Tamar has not visited her for some time. Theodora knows what she is up to, but has sworn not to tell. Tamar has run away from home—leaving a reassuring note for her parents: she is a kind, thoughtful girl, as Grossman repeatedly emphasizes. She has had her wildly tumbling curls shaved close and is about to move into a cave hidden in the countryside. The object of these maneuvers to make herself unrecognizable and invisible is to cure her eighteen-year-old brother Shai of his heroin addiction. He has disappeared, and she intends to find him and detox him in the privacy of the cave. She knows it will be torture for both of them, but she is willing to face it.
Tamar seems like an adventurous young boy. Perhaps that’s why she gets on so well with Theodora. She also has a ravishing voice, takes singing lessons, and intends to be a musician. Meanwhile, she needs to make money to feed herself and Dinka and, she hopes, Shai; so she sings in the streets of Jerusalem (you wouldn’t think this was the best way of hiding from her family). She sings songs by Billie Holiday, Mozart, the Beatles, Kurt Weill, Leonard Cohen, and Pergolesi (the Stabat Mater); also settings of Emily Dickinson’s poetry (Dickinson appears to be popular in Israel); and sometimes she has to sing “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” from The Sound of Music, though she finds that “saccharine and schmaltzy.” But the audiences love it—and her too; they crowd around and fill her collection plate.
An up-to-no-good old couple lure her into a hostel for young street artists—musicians, acrobats, conjurors, trick cyclists—and she soon discovers that they are all there under duress. The owner is a drug dealer called Pesach who exploits them and takes most of their earnings. He employs a gaggle of thugs to drive them all over Israel for their performances. If they try to escape, the thugs manhandle them back into their cars. Tamar makes friends with an amusing, protective, streetwise girl called Sheli, who dies of an overdose. Meals in the hostel are communal, and one day Tamar spots her brother Shai in the dining hall. He looks sick and crazed and refuses to look at her. After dinner Pesach orders her to sing to the company, and she chooses a song
about van Gogh, how this world wasn’t meant for someone like him. But at the same time, she was telling Shai, with the rich colors of her voice, with its gentle touch, all she had gone through during that time, during her coming of age, when he hadn’t been paying attention; and everything she had learned since he had disappeared, about others and herself. Layer by layer, she peeled off the rough skin of her disappointments, the sobering realizations, until she reached the place where there was nothing left covering her, the bare kernel of herself. And from that place, she sang to him the final notes of the song.
He didn’t look at her once the entire time. He just sat, his head resting on one hand, his eyes closed, his face twitching with a pain that looked impossible to bear.
Then he shuffles out of the room. Tamar is shattered. But he returns with his guitar and starts playing John Lennon’s “Imagine.” “Her heart leaped out to him through her overalls,” and she sings along, melting the “blocks of ice” in “the frozen sea between them.” The hostel inmates are enraptured, and Pesach decides to send the two young musicians out to perform together—he doesn’t realize they are brother and sister. This is their chance to escape. Tamar’s friend Leah is waiting to whisk them off in her car. One of Pesach’s crew follows and threatens them with a gun—the first in a series of cliffhangers—but Leah makes a successful getaway. The only trouble is that in the scuffle Dinka gets left behind—ready to be found by Assaf’s supervisor.
Leah is another exemplary character, a tough, middle-aged, outspoken single woman who has cured herself of drug addiction, adopted a Vietnamese orphan, and runs a successful, expensive restaurant, where she feeds anyone who needs it for free. She is very fond of Tamar—she is what you might call “all over her”—and sounds like a lesbian. Grossman doesn’t say she is; but she has “a large, manly hand.”
Tamar and Shai are now free to start on the detoxification program she’s planned for him. The plot accelerates. By this time, Assaf has taken charge of Dinka, and she is tugging him, via Leah’s restaurant, to Theodora’s tower. He finds Theodora’s room smashed up, wrecked by Pesach’s men in their hunt for Tamar; and they have beaten up Theodora—though not so badly that she can’t follow Assaf and Dinka out into the road and feel ecstatically free for the first time in fifty years. So that’s one good thing.
Assaf and Dinka make their way toward the cave. Shai sees them approaching, thinks Assaf belong to Pesach’s gang, and tries to run away. Assaf chases him and knocks him down. Then Tamar knocks Assaf out with a stone. He recovers very quickly, and they sort out the situation, explaining who they are and what they are trying to do. Assaf—obsessed with the idea of Tamar since Theodora first spoke of her—falls instantly in love and offers to stay and help her with Shai—a noble gesture, because Shai does a lot of “screaming and crying and vomiting,” and the vomit gets all over Assaf. After a couple of sleepless nights the cure seems to have worked, and so have Assaf’s devotion and charm on Tamar. But by this time Pesach and his men have learned about the cave, and are climbing up the hill toward the final cliffhanger.
The denouement is conventional: plainclothes policemen seep out of the bushes at the very last moment and capture the thugs. Shai and Tamar’s parents take Shai back, although he has been afraid they wouldn’t. Tamar promises to join them the next day: she wants to spend one last night in the cave, she says. Assaf goes with her. “They hardly spoke. Tamar noticed that she had never met a person she felt so comfortable being silent with.” And that’s the end.
Someone to Run With is full of improbabilities and it is terribly sentimental. But the good characters, especially the teenagers, are saved from Victorian soppiness by their spunky talk: it makes them attractive rather than irritatingly exemplary—more Tom Sawyer than Little Lord Fauntleroy. Grossman is very good at making his characters seem charming, especially in their dialogue. He is also good at the poetic evocation of landscapes and townscapes, though inclined to overdo feelings about them. If Ronit Matalon is a minimalist, he is an ultra-romantic. In its wittily idiomatic translation, Someone to Run With is an enjoyable novel; one just has to disregard the implausibilities and the naiveté—or is it faux naiveté?
February 26, 2004