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Spring 2019

The Cost of a Lie, the Value of Nothing

A young woman, a celebrity, a sexual assault, a media storm: all very much part of the #MeToo zeitgeist, no? But Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen takes the reader along a very different path.

Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, translated by Sondra Silverston. Pushkin Press, pp. 283.

 

Liar, by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (tr. Sondra Silverston), presents the story of Nofar: seventeen, an ugly duckling in her own eyes, invisible to her peers. We meet her during the summer vacation before her last year of high school, working in an ice-cream shop in the center of Tel Aviv, desperately hoping for something to happen to her, something to rescue her from her depressing life. And something does happen. After an altercation with a customer, a famous-for-fifteen-minutes refugee from reality television, she flees the shop in tears and runs into a neighboring backyard. He chases after her, grabs her arm firmly; she screams. Passers-by gather round and offer their assistance; and almost by accident, the story of a sexual assault that never took place is born. Nofar’s lie picks up pace; suddenly the girl under a cloud is in the limelight, and everyone wants to be associated with her.

Liar, Gundar-Goshen’s third novel, addresses two very contemporary, but nevertheless opposing, social phenomena: #MeToo and Fake News. That said, this novel is not about female empowerment, and does not address the issue of sexual harassment. To the contrary: it tries to understand what might prompt a regular everyday girl to make an untrue accusation against another person. In parallel, it presents a false reality in which all of its characters are guilty of lies, and considers the value of a lie in an age where the “narrative” has become a substitute for identity.  

Liar addresses this question on two levels, the modern and the postmodern. With the first, the novel considers its protagonist’s psycho-social positioning as an explanation for her lie. Nofar’s life undergoes a dramatic upheaval in the wake of her accusation; she is interviewed on television chat shows about her ordeal, and her social status sky-rockets. She benefits personally from this: a newly discovered self-confidence creates a buffer which helps her to deal with her ambivalence towards her supposed assailant, and to ward off growing suspicions about her tale. But this central narrative pivot is flawed. There is something naïve and reductive in the presentation of this thread: the characterization is unconvincing, the details unrealistic. The police investigating the allegation, the media, her family, her school: all come across very much like rhetorical devices, an all-too-easy means of conveying a complicated message about contemporary Israeli society.

However. What comes across as flaws from a realist point of view takes on new significance from a postmodern perspective. Liar presents a social reality underpinned by what Fredric Jameson describes as “the cultural logic of late capitalism.” This reality is that of a global consumerist society, a social reality within which identity is just another product; feelings, passions, memories are mere items, and can be purchased or exchanged according to one’s whims. In this marketplace called Capitalism, the most popular goods for sale are self-image, the “brand,” and symbolic capital.

This orientation becomes somewhat clearer once one begins to engage with Gundar-Goshen’s sub-plots, and their underlying roles as literary devices. One such digression concerns the relationship between Raymonde and Rivka, two elderly women living in a retirement home. Raymonde immigrated to Israel as a child from Morocco, and spent her childhood in a Ma’araba, a transit camp for new migrants. Rivka, for her part, is a Holocaust survivor; she spent her first years in Israel on a Kibbutz, where, as she puts it, she acquired “proper Hebrew.”

This story arc hints at the historical tensions between the Mizrahim and the Ashkenazim, between the Jews from the East and the Jews from the West: the explosive socio-political context upon which the social framework of the new State of Israel established itself in the 1950s. The Mizrahi immigrants who arrived in Israel in the late 1940s and 1950s were perceived by the founding fathers of the nation—almost all of them Ashkenazim—as arriving from a primitive place. The official “Melting Pot” state policies of the era demanded of the new immigrants that they must change; that they erase their inferior identities from the galut (which for most meant the identity of the Arab world from whence they had arrived), and replace this with the identity of the Israeli sabra.

The Holocaust survivors who arrived in Israel during the same period had a similarly alienated experience. But then, their status began to change. From the 1960s onwards, the status of the Holocaust survivor became symbolic capital of sorts for the first-generation survivors and their descendants—the source of prestige, sometimes even power.

This explosive discourse of identity began to seep into literary works by Israeli writers of Mizrahi background in the 1990s, shaped by a theme that I have described elsewhere as “Holocaust envy.” In many of these works, the Mizrahi hero undergoes a transformation of sorts, and is turned into a Holocaust survivor too, by way of mimicking and performing the identity of the survivor—or, otherwise, through a fantastical form of reincarnation. The identity exchange depicted thus—examples include Kobi Oz’s Avara’ayan Tzaatzua, Yossi Avni’s Aunt Farhuma Wasn’t a Whore After All, and Dudu Busi’s A Noble Savage—tended to be presented in somewhat ambivalent fashion. On the one hand, there is the (fictionalized) desire of the Mizrahim to be like their Ashkenazi brothers. They too want a Holocaust experience, in order to acquire the prestigious status of a victim. But in this mimicry, there is a deliberately parodic or grotesque aspect, from which the social critique of the fiction emerges. Here, the commentary is pointed: in order to be fully accepted into normative Israeli society, one must transform oneself into a survivor of the Shoah.

Raymonde and Rivka, from two historically different worlds but together in the retirement home, become intimates; they are so close that they begin to be confused for one another, the staff nicknaming them the Siamese Twins. But then Rivka dies. The night before, Rivka had given Raymonde her mobile telephone—she was tired of the constant calls from her children, she explains. This is how Raymonde finds herself answering a telephone call intended for Rivka, from the leader of a party of high-school students visiting Poland and the concentration camps of the Holocaust. Rivka is scheduled to accompany the trip, to give the youths first-hand testimony of her experience. The delegation leader, flustered and hurried, does not know that Rivka has passed away, does not realize that she is speaking with Raymonde. But Raymonde knows. After a moment of hesitation, Raymonde/Rivka finds herself confirming that yes, she remembers; almost by accident, she begins to pose as a Holocaust survivor.

On the face of it, this appears to be another example of “Holocaust envy.” But the use to which it is put here is instrumental, rather than intrinsic. Because Raymonde/Rivka puts her memories of childhood in a transit camp to good use, turning them into memories of deprivation during the Holocaust, one is tempted to conclude that the objective here is to present a critique (extreme, perhaps) of the process of absorbing the Mizrahim immigrants to Israel (a stance evident in the literature of some Mizrahim writers). But it soon becomes clear that Raymonde is using her memories as a commodity, a reservoir from which she can reproduce the identity of a Holocaust survivor—and all that comes with this status. The identity created here is a simulacrum, an imitation of reality. The words that Raymonde uses in her “testimony” recode the scenes, but without context: socks; hunger; suffering; cold. In “Holocaust envy,” the transformation of the identities of the Mizrahi characters is always rooted in a social-historical context, revealing the pain of exclusion that a generation of parents and children experienced at the hands of an alienating society. But Gundar-Goshen presents Raymonde’s impersonation as a part of the phenomenon of consumerism; here, the desired commodity is that of the identity of Victim.

This sub-plot attaches to the main narrative only thinly. The journey to Poland is from Nofar’s school, and she is one of the participants. Troubled by the blurred relationship between fact and fiction, Nofar seeks our Raymonde/Rivka on their return to Israel; after confessing the lie, Nofar asks for her advice. Raymonde/Rivka responds harshly: “With all due respect, there’s a little more to this world than what people say about you. There are things that you must not do, and you did them.” But immediately after this, the impersonator confesses to her own transgressions. Nofar is disappointed that the person who she had taken to be a wise old woman was behaving exactly like an irresponsible teenager; no longer “a Holocaust survivor, but a Holocaust conniver, pretending to be a victim to gain things.” Unsurprisingly—perhaps conveniently—Nofar chooses to reject her advice. But there is a deeper point here. The two characters, facing one another with their lies and deceptions, might well be standing in front of a mirror, reflecting their true selves; both pretending to be victims, both gaining social currency through this impersonation.

The world of Liar is one in which identity is stripped of historical, social and biographical detail. Instead, identity becomes a commodity, symbolic capital by virtue of one’s status as a victim

In “The Skill of Victimhood,” Alon Gan explores the depths of this phenomenon in Israeli society and further afield. Victimhood, the argument goes, is the bon-ton of the postmodern era. Something that at first was a means for presenting the stories of the exploited became a goal in itself—admission to the privileged club of Victimhood. The two stories of Liar, not quite intertwined and not quite parallel, highlight the benefits of Victim status in contemporary society. From unseen and invisible, Nofar becomes the young woman who everyone wants to be seen with. She gives candid interviews on television, and receives clothes and presents from the brands who want to be associated with her as the person of the moment. Made-up, she becomes beautiful, and shakes off the shackles of her moribund existence. And she finds love too. Lavi Maimon is the same age as her, but they have more in common. He too is alienated, hovering on the margins of social life, entertaining thoughts of suicide. His fate changes one day, though, when he looks out of the window of his apartment, and becomes the sole witness to the attack that never was. Armed with the truth, he plucks up the courage to approach Nofar, sets up a date with her. It’s a relationship of sorts; but in different ways, each draws strength from the other.

Raymonde/Rivka too reaps the benefits of her new-found status of victim, Holocaust victim. At first, they are relatively minor—the trip abroad, the first plane journey she has taken in her life and indeed the spark for the deception. But as time goes by and she settles into her new status, the benefits begin to accrue. From the students of the delegation, recognition and admiration; then later, from Arieh, love and affection. She meets him at an event for survivors of the Theresienstadt concentration camp, which she had attended to “deepen” her new-found identity. Thus the two mirror images, Nofar and Raymonde, become the center of attention, possessors of a valuable social status enhanced by love and companionship.

Liar is anchored by two social arenas, ostensibly representing the two ends of the trajectory of mature adult life: high school, infused with the freedom of youth; and the retirement home, defined by old age, free time, and ultimately death. The reader quickly comes to understand that these two arenas are reflections of one another—as Rivka, the real Rivka, puts it, “the retirement home is like high school for adults.” What is it like to be old, Nofar asks Raymonde/Rivka? To be completely alone, she replies. So much so, one makes up things just to be less alone. Nofar is disappointed by her answer—it seems to suggest, she thinks, that old age isn’t very much different from being seventeen.

It’s an interesting point. By presenting the young girl and the old woman on similar social and emotional axes, stripping from the latter the wisdom that we assume accrues with the passage of time, Gundar-Goshen illuminates the postmodern game that the two are a part of. The world of Liar is one in which identity is stripped of historical, social and biographical detail. Instead, identity becomes a commodity, symbolic capital by virtue of one’s status as a victim—the ultimate victim of the Holocaust, or the more contemporary victim of the #MeToo movement. Liar does not actually criticize this phenomenon, but rather documents this desire for public standing and status, fueled by the hunger for recognition and visibility. Each and every one of the principal characters of this book craves their own 15 minutes of fame—they need it to define their own existence. Even people seeking to create their victimhood through death want to be on the front page of the newspaper, as we understand with Lavi Maimon’s perhaps romanticized thoughts of suicide.

The postmodern orientation of the narrative is apparent elsewhere, and not to the credit of the book. The language and style of Liar lacks depth, which somewhat serves to emphasize a narrative flatness and arbitrariness. In Poland, for instance, Raymonde fears that she will be revealed as a fraud: but, on the second day of the trip, “when she finished speaking and everybody was standing in front of the showers, passing round tissues as though they were popcorn at the cinema, [Raymonde knew] the guide was already completely hers.”

This comparison, between watching a movie at the cinema and the testimony of Holocaust survivors, only serves to underline just how completely reality has been drained of all substance. Popcorn at the cinema, crying at the horrors of the Holocaust: both are subsumed on the same emotional level, expressions of a reality in which everything has become commercialized: emotions, memories, identity itself.

To be fair, Gundar-Goshen captures the postmodern situation well. But: again and again, a sense of unease manifests while reading the book. Does Liar seek to expose this reality as an attempt to present something of substance to the reader? It does seem that dressing up this reflection of postmodernism with literary sensibilities sacrifices a more poignant consideration of life as it is lived, complexities and all. Perhaps Liar is, in its own way, mimicry of a mimicry, and thus merely part of the same structure that it seeks to depict.

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