Sayed Kashua, Track Changes (translated by Mitch Ginsburg), Grove Press, pp. 242.
Sayed Kashua must be sick of himself already. For years, he has been revising and rewriting essentially the same novel, albeit always with new literary flourishes that speak to his inventiveness. But none of that overcomes the reality that he has milked dry his familiar themes: alienation, loss, longing, and exile, the preoccupations of his youth, which have begun to feel forced as he embraces middle age.
A whiff of fraudulence, which speaks to this inauthenticity, permeates the margins of Track Changes. We meet Kashua’s first-person narrator Saeed who seems uncannily similar to the author himself. Both share almost the same autobiographical beginnings. Born in Tira, a Palestinian Arab village in the north of Israel, Saeed unexpected returns from America, where he has been living for the past fifteen years, estranged from his large Palestinian family and the Jews who once befriended him, to his father’s deathbed. As he travels home, his mind (and the story) wanders backwards in time, mining memories from the past, and old wounds, dormant for years, resurface.
For those unfamiliar with Kashua, he too was born in Tira, which he left as a young teenager to attend an elite academy in Jerusalem, one of the few token Arab children. He was teased mercilessly by the Jewish kids, but thrived anyway, and was soon noticed for his creative excellence. Soon enough, he was writing a beloved weekly column for Ha’aretz which spoke to his experiences living among Jews in Jerusalem with light humor—and occasional flashes of anger. At night, he would drink and smoke for hours on end with his Jewish colleagues from the newsroom at one or another of Jerusalem’s watering holes. He liked being embraced by the Jews despite the tensions this provoked among his own people.
All this ended when the three Jewish boys, Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel, were kidnapped and brutally murdered by Hamas, and a mania took hold of Israel, including in Kashua’s newsroom. He fled for Middle America, where he has spent the last several years teaching, writing, and winning countless accolades for his accomplishments in television, literature, and film. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Leaving was traumatic,” Kashua wrote in a letter to writer Etgar Keret published in The New Yorker shortly after he left Israel in 2014. “I felt like a refugee running for his life. And the decision to leave quickly was made even before the war with Gaza began. On the day the Palestinian boy [Mohammad Abu Khdeir] was burned to death in Jerusalem, I realized I couldn’t let my kids leave the house anymore.” He called his travel agent and left immediately. “I swear to you Etgar, I saw the way that my closest Jewish friends started looking at me differently. Sometimes, they tried not to look me in the eye, and sometimes their looks were accusing, condescending, hating.”
Kashua seems like a man who had always been, in essence, an island unto himself. Temperamentally averse to raging controversies and unnecessary victimhood of any kind, he was fed up with the unending tension. And fed up with the Jews.
In Track Changes, Saeed is also the product of an elite Jewish academy who quickly rose to become a successful journalist. Similarly, Saeed also found refuge in Middle America with his family in tow. But America is not the idyllic wonderland he imagined, and at times bores him silly with its empty cornfields and roadside bars. He finds himself with too much time to think, and images of his birthplace, Tira, return to his mind. He misses the strawberries, the figs, the honeybees, and the sabra flowers that would grow wild beneath a swaying canopy of trees. He recalls the red loamy soil he used to love digging his hands into and laments the fact that his children never had a chance to do so.
He also remembers his hurried wedding. After writing a story about a village girl that his neighbors mistakenly deemed unseemingly—Kashua does not specify exactly why—the two were forced to marry. The villagers then banished them both. He remembers how beautiful his wife looked to him that day, sitting with her long hair and her solemn expression. However, a staleness settled over their marriage almost instantly and, although children followed and they went about their daily affairs, the family had no vibrant heartbeat. In America, the couple live almost completely separate lives. While Saeed’s children seem content in America, infatuated with the large suburban malls and endless fast food chains, and their computer gadgets which they were never without, he wonders why he feels so far from them.
Some days, he tries to write, but the words will not come anymore. He finds the ability to be invisible in America both irresistible and catastrophic. It allows him to almost completely disappear into himself, giving in to an inclination he has spent years fighting. Mostly, he seems to be searching for something inside himself. But we sense he is not even sure anymore what precisely he is looking for.
In his loneliness, Saeed dives into his memory. He remembers when he worked feverishly as a successful ghostwriter in Jerusalem, turning other people’s lives into presentable memoirs. When his customers gave him too little information to work with, he found himself inserting his own memories into their stories, and was always shocked when they never seemed to notice. He understood that his primary directive was not the truth, but making their lives attractive: “The written memory must be made beautiful, and if I felt the material I was given during an interview might tarnish the image of the protagonist in the memoir in the eyes of his or her readers, I edited their dreams, erased and added sentences, and even, as necessary, invented new dreams to accompany them in bed. I inserted into their life stories memories and dreams they had never dreamt or recalled.”
In fact, Kashua the author does the very same in Track Changes. He plays with truth and memory, adding and deleting as he sees fit, often for purposes that remain unstated but hint to his dissatisfaction with the way contemporary narratives rely on permanence. It feels as if he is trying to tell us how unreliable all memories are, and how most of us use them selfishly and selectively to suit our own fluctuating needs. He sometimes leaves lines of text clearly visible, but crossed out with a thin line, as if the lines of typescript were intended to be deleted; often these are the most telling passages.
For example, when Saaed arrives at his father’s hospital room he encounters his brother- and sister-in-law for the first time in a decade:
“What are you doing here?” my older brother asked. “Why’d you come?”
“Stop it,” my mother ordered. “Not now, not in the hospital. He’s your brother. Enough.”
“You smelled death and came to take some of the remains?” my brother said. And Mom cried and begged in the name of Allah that this was not the time, that we are brothers.
“Go home,” my mother urged him and turned to his wife. “Please take your husband home.”
“Let’s go,” his wife said, tugging his hand. “Let’s go home.”
Right beneath this crossed out exchange is another paragraph describing how he arrives at his father’s room and is hugged by his mother who tells him to get some rest. Sitting down by his father’s bedside, he remembers how disturbed he had been by his father’s zealousness and excessive manliness in pursuing the Palestinian causes that had always seemed to him foolish and unproductive. Saeed was a rational man, and before that a pragmatic child, never prone to the coercions of any group-think mentality or agenda. He had never understood his father, yet as the long night continues and he senses death is near, he wonders if his father might recover and offer him the solace and approval he still longs for, despite their long-held hostilities.
But something about Saeed’s nostalgic yearnings ring hollow and false. They feel like a forced inventiveness, the same kind the narrator tells us he once effortlessly inserted into his client’s narratives. We feel pushed away by Saeed, and by extension, pushed away by Sayed Kashua. The important people in Saeed’s life, from the past and present, never truly come alive. Kashua seems to give them short shrift, often reducing them to walk-ons inside a play of his own making. Even the Jews and Palestinians are essentially indistinguishable from one another, and all are strangers to him. There are no new evaluations or observations here.
Perhaps the reason we feel so little compassion for Kashu’s alter-ego Saeed is the suspicion that he is conniving us with worn-out memories that no longer truly resonate, even for him. Kashua loses us by remaining mired in a past we sense he has relinquished long ago, in exchange for a strange new world he still seems hesitant to describe.