Interview: Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

The Israeli debut novelist who has defined a nation


There is something passionate about the people of Israel. Born into a seemingly eternal conflict, they live faster and more sensuously than other people, as though they know that it could all end at any moment. Such a country also produces great storytellers, writers who feed off the tensions and emotions of this unlikely nation.

The latest in a long line of these storytellers is Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, a softly-spoken 32-year-old former journalist from Tel Aviv with a wavy black bob and a knowing smile. Her debut novel, One Night Markovitch, was a bestseller in Israel and has now been published in England to considerable acclaim. It is an astonishing achievement; a lyrical, visceral, almost biblical tale. It follows the inhabitants of an Israeli village from before the Second World War through to the 1948 War of Independence and beyond, their personal passions set against an epoch-defining backdrop. The book is already being adapted into an English-language film.

It follows two best friends, Feinberg and Markovitch, as they are swept up by these events. The two men travel to Europe to marry women in order to help them escape to Palestine. And then after the war they travel to Europe again as part of the Nakam, the vengeful assassins who hunted down Nazi criminals.

"For Israeli kids this period is our once upon a time," she says when we meet for lunch in Soho. "A country being born out of this womb of blood and fire, this is a mythological time. A whole factory of myth."

The book channels the passionate lives of Israel's founders, while also reflecting the extraordinary realities they faced; not least disillusionment with their new home. "For people to be without a nation for such a long time, you need a big hope or a big insanity to keep hoping for so many years," she says. "I wanted to look at what happens to these people when they finally reach Israel, people coming from the Holocaust, from the Arab nations. Each carrying his own fantasy of what the land will be, and then they crash. The land cannot fulfil these expectations."

Israel needs to find its inner Feinberg

Though it is based on real events, Gundar-Goshen's book is also strangely ahistorical. Empty of any dates or place names, it reads more like a biblical fable than historical fiction. As well as working for Yediot Ahronot as a news editor, Gundar-Goshen also trained as a psychologist, and it is her fascination with people and their motivations that drives her writing.

"I wondered if I could sneak into the myth factory of Israel's birth and look behind the big machines, what would I find there? I always look at the famous picture of the men who signed the declaration of independence and wonder - maybe there is one guy there who wants the loo. Maybe another guy is angry that he isn't standing in the middle of the picture. I'm interested in those big national moments clashing with the flesh and blood."

It is the flesh and blood that dominates her book as the characters tear each other to pieces. But the novel is always operating on two levels, the personal and the political, and the two merge in one breathtaking scene that anyone with even the slightest interest in Israel should read.

Markovitch has married Bella as part of a scheme to rescue Jewish women from the Nazis. All the other men who travelled with Markovitch divorced their wives upon reaching Palestine, according to plan. But Markovitch is an ugly man, a desperate man, often ignored and longing for beauty and love. He refuses to let Bella go, chaining her to him in miserable union. Bella will not sleep with Markovitch, so he spends each night on the sofa, clasping her nightdress around his arm, hoping she will come.

His best friend Feinberg tells him to let it go."Two thousand years we've been hoping for her, waiting for her, sleeping at night with our arms around the sleeves of her nightdress," he responds. "And do you think she wants us? Nonsense! She vomits us up time and again ... So you think someone here says 'There's no point holding a country by force if she's been trying to get rid of you from the minute you came to her? No. You hold on to her as hard as you can and you hope."

Gundar-Goshen is a liberal and has also worked for the Israeli Human Rights Association. She is on the left of Israeli politics, so much so that she planned to protest against her government's heavy-handedness in the Gaza war last summer, but she had to stay at home to look after her new baby. Her husband went to the demonstration though, and was beaten by angry nationalist counter-protesters. "We'll never go again as a family to protest," he said on his return. So is this her view of Israel then, holding on to a land that doesn't want it?

"I didn't want to write a 400-page metaphor. I'm a very political person so when I want to say something political I sign a petition. I don't think literature is a petition, it is a question not a statement. For me it was important to write a love story about what human beings can do to other human beings, either by being compassionate or cruel.

"But of course on another level you cannot write something different to your fears and dreams and so there is this political level. When Markovich holds Bella against her will, thinking that if you only hold long enough, or want long enough, then something will happen, blind to the possibility that there are other people around then yes this is not just face value. This is not just the story of two people."

The tragedy of Gundar-Goshen's Markovitch is that he's suffered bullying and derision throughout his life, nursing his frustration and resentment inside himself. When he has the opportunity, instead of showing the grace that was never shown to him, he does the exact opposite. "In a way there are aspects of Israel that are the same," Gundar-Goshen muses.

But to say that Markovitch is Israel would be to cut her story in half. There is also Feinberg, proud, beautiful, a lover of women and the land. This is the Israel that Gundar-Goshen believes in; the Israel that is not trapped by its own past suffering, a nation that attempts to make the land blossom with the power of its own love

Gundar-Goshen believes Israel needs to find its inner Feinberg, or else it will never escape its past. "This is a country suffering from severe post-trauma. The trauma is justified, there really was a huge trauma. But then again, you can't keep having this concept of history as if it was the present, because it's not. If you're blind to what's happening now, you think you're seeing today's reality but what you're actually seeing is your own fears."

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