Interview: Alon Hilu

Alon Hilu won Israel’s top book prize only to have it taken away. He tells Simon Round why his novel caused such a fuss

February 25, 2010
Alon Hilu believes he broke a taboo by criticising the roots of Zionism

Alon Hilu believes he broke a taboo by criticising the roots of Zionism

Alon Hilu has been feted as one of Israel's finest young writers. He has also been condemned as a traitor to his own country.

Very few novels have attracted the level of interest, both positive and negative, as his latest book, The House of Rajani. The novel, set in the 19th century, tells in diary form the story of the relationship between an Arab boy in Jaffa and a Russian immigrant, and has been lavishly praised and condemned in equal measure. Israeli President Shimon Peres described it as "an extraordinary book" while critics have condemned it as unpatriotic.

Hilu was awarded the Sapir Prize (Israel's equivalent of the Man Booker Prize) for the novel; two weeks later, the prize was taken away.

He has had his photo splashed all over the Israeli papers; the story has been covered by, among others The Washington Post in America and Corriere Della Sera in Italy. Questions were even asked about it in the Knesset.

Although Hilu knew that he was playing with fire when he came up with the idea for his historical novel, he did not foresee the furore which broke out with the book's publication.

He says: "I wanted to write a book about a Palestinian boy who could foresee the catastrophe which was to engulf his people. I gave him the name Salah, a prophet in the Koran who could foresee the future."

The other main character is a Russian-Jewish immigrant, named after a real person, Haim Margaliot Kalvirisky, in the Hebrew-language version of the book but renamed Isaac Luminsky in the English translation following legal action by Kalvirisky's descendants.

The fictional Kalvirisky/Luminsky is a Zionist idealist and a womaniser who covets an estate owned by an Arab woman with whom he has an affair.

"Many people in Israel thought that the Jewish character was evil, like a monster," says Hilu. "But when I wrote his part of the book I was in love with his character. Everything he does is for a good reason - only when you read the two diaries together do you get the impression that things are not as he describes."

The two men have a radically different view of events. Hilu explains: "These two are both what you could call 'unreliable narrators'. Not everything Salah says is correct - you should always take into consideration that he may be exaggerating or lying. There is a very complicated relationship between telling your own story and living your life.

"I got so much fire and abuse from critics in Israel who called me a traitor. I answered that, no, this was not the case."

Hilu believes that he has broken a taboo by casting a shadow over the country's founding pioneers. "Usually, people in Israel can tolerate criticism of current life and the occupation, but when you come back to the roots of the conflict people get much more upset and nervous."

Hilu dares to pose the question of whether Zionism could be characterised as a type of colonialism. "I think there were some colonial aspects within early Zionism. We see a relationship between people from Europe and people from the Muslim world who were sometimes treated as natives. When the Zionists acquired lands, there were inhabitants who had no legal rights under Ottoman law and they were kicked off. There is an irony in Zionists kicking out the inhabitants, building a kibbutz and proclaiming it a Socialist paradise."

The row over the book peaked last year with the Sapir Prize affair. Says Hilu: "Two weeks after I was publicly declared the winner, the board of directors revoked the prize, giving the reason that the chairman was a relative of my editor.

"I believe it was really because a book which could be interpreted as a criticism of Zionism should not be awarded a public prize. I hired a lawyer and we came to a compromise where I kept half the money and they agreed not to elect a replacement. To this day, I do not know whether I am the winner of the 2009 prize or not."

The row had one positive consequence for Hilu - in the midst of the controversy a further 20,000 books were sold. However, he was unhappy. "It's nice to be famous but not under these circumstances."

'The House of Rajani' is published on March 2 by Harvill Secker (£12.99). Alon Hilu will be in conversation with Ian Black on February 28 at 3.30pm and at a Hebrew language session at 5pm.

Last updated: 2:59pm, August 28 2014