Off the Shelf: Contemporary Israel in fiction

Before I request a review copy of a novel, I check to see if it contains Jewish content. At a minimum, there has to be at least one Jewish character. If religion plays a role in the book, that’s even better. When looking at works by Israeli authors, though, the same rules don’t always apply. Almost all Jewish Israeli authors have Jewish characters in their books – that is, if their works take place in Israel. However, as you’ll see in the review below, some focus on everyday existence while others feature Jewish heritage and history. All offer a world where Judaism is considered a normal part of daily life. 

“The Last Interview”

The intensely personal “The Last Interview” by Eshkol Nevo (Other Press) does something surprising: in addition to allowing readers to see into the heart and soul of the narrator, it also offers an interesting view of Israeli life. The novel’s set-up is unusual; rather than straight narrative, the work consists of interview questions and answers. The person being interviewed (the narrator) seems on the verge of having a breakdown: he has writer’s block; his daughter has opted to go to boarding school so she won’t have to talk to him; he fears his wife is on the verge of leaving him; and his best friend is dying. He also suffers from low-grade depression, something not entirely unexpected from someone facing those problems.

The novel’s unusual format continues in the way the narrator answers the questions: rather than direct answers, he goes off on long tangents and unexpected detours. The story circles around and around, and the plot has to be pieced together over the course of the novel’s 460-plus pages. What makes uncovering the truth even more difficult is that, at times, the narrator is unable to tell the difference between fact and fiction: different versions of stories emerge, leaving the reader to decide if what was finally revealed is the truth.

The result, though, is fascinating. The prose is filled with emotions that feel raw and real. Not only does the narrator discuss the problems of being a writer, but the difficulty of being an Israeli: the fears faced on a daily basis – from wars to terrorist attacks – and the difficulty of army training, of what must happen to turn someone into a soldier. “The Last Interview” is an impressive work that will intrigue those looking to see into the heart of an Israeli writer. 

“The Tunnel”

The personal and political also meet in an interesting way in “The Tunnel” by A. B. Yehoshua (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). The main focus of the novel is the exploration of dementia: when 70-something Zvi Luria learns there is a problem with his brain, his life changes. While the retired engineer’s case is not in the worst stages yet, he’s already begun to forget first names and addresses. His wife, Dina, a pediatrician on the verge of retirement, is worried that he won’t fight the disease and suggests he follow his doctor’s orders to stay active. In an unusual turn of events, he finds unpaid employment, helping Asael Maimoni, an engineer at the Israel Road Authority, decide where a road should be placed in the desert.

The political aspects of the novel, which are underplayed, concern a hill located in the path of the road. On that hill live three Jordanian Arabs who came to Israel for medical reasons and who now could legally be expelled back to Jordan if they are discovered. Zvi realizes that several people – including Maimoni – are working to prevent that from happening. In order to protect the hill, they engage Zvi to help persuade the Road Authority to put a tunnel through the hill, rather than destroy it. After all, Zvi is known for the tunnels he designed before his retirement.

The two parts of the story are interwoven like a rug with a complex pattern. Much focus is placed on Zvi’s illness and his new behavioral patterns. Readers may wonder how much of his behavior is based on his dementia and how much is rebellion against accepting the restrictions placed on him by his wife. While the story is absorbing, there is little plot; the emphasis is on Zvi’s introspection about dementia, making this a novel that may not appeal to all readers. Plus, its ending may leave one puzzled, wondering if Yehoshua uses symbolism that might be clearer to his Israeli readers.

“The Memory Monster”

A letter to the chairman of the board of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center located in Israel, turns into an autobiography of the writer in Yishai Sarid’s short and unusual novel “The Memory Monster” (Restless Books). The Memory Monster is the Holocaust and the narrator’s determination to understand what occurred during that time overturns and warps his life.

The unnamed narrator had not originally planned to study the Holocaust, but a confluence of events leads him to consider it the best course in order to support his wife and child. While waiting for his research to be published, his main employment is as a tour guide in Poland, something that keeps him away from his family for long periods of time. His mental state is not helped by the fact that he believes he wouldn’t have been able to resist the Nazis – that he would have caved in to their demands as a way to stay alive. He begins to alienate the Israeli students and teachers who take his tours, particularly when he suggests that anyone with a little power ends up behaving like a Nazi.

It didn’t come as a surprise that something finally pushes him over the edge because readers know from the beginning of the work that he is trying to explain an unnamed event that occurred. Why that event was the final straw is not completely clear, but that’s something for readers to debate. In fact, a great deal of “The Memory Monster” is open for debate, which would make this an excellent, if not very difficult, book to discuss at a book club. However, readers should be prepared to be troubled by the lessons its narrator teaches.


D. A. Mishani is best known for his detective series featuring police inspector Avraham Avraham. His latest work, “Three” (Europe Editions), is a departure in that it’s a stand alone novel. Its first section, when readers learn about Orna’s adjustment to life after divorce, reads as a psychological work exploring the life of a lonely woman trying to help her son adjust to being abandoned by his father. The insights offered are so well done that its ending came as a complete surprise. 

The second section continues in this psychological vein by offering a portrait of Emilia, an immigrant caregiver whose patient has died. She now not only has to find a new place to work, but somewhere to live since she shared an apartment with her patient and his wife. Her adjustment to a new home and her employment are carefully explored and, at first, her story seems to have no connection to Orna’s. Yet, one detail emerges that finally ties together the lives of the women.

To say anything about the plot of the third section would give away too much of the story. It is, however, where Mishani shows his greatest skill by creating not only page-turning suspense, but an impressive surprise, making this work perfect for those who love thrillers. The only complaint readers may have is that the psychology of one of the characters is never explored and left instead to the readers’ imaginations. While the author does not specifically highlight Israeli life, readers can learn about Israeli culture through the everyday details that are offered, including the use of caregivers from foreign countries who serve as aides to the old and infirm. However, sociological considerations take second place to suspense.