Welcome to the Desert of the Real

We’re used to saying that truth is stranger than fiction. But why does Israeli literature hold back from strangeness in both truth and fiction?

Every year, in the month of May, in one of the central regions of the country of my birth, the first rains of the season would bring with them a downpour of fish. No one ever bothered to try and explain why, and no one had any doubt that it would keep happening year after year. This was the way of the world: in the month of May – fish fall out of the sky. The papers would report it, of course, but the gist of the articles was more meteorological than magical. That was just the reality, the reality I knew in Latin America.

Almost forty years later, after I’d already moved to Israel, a radio producer from the Galey Tzahal station called me up and asked me: “Do you know any stories about places in the world where it rains fish?” It turned out that she’d read several reports from a few different places in the world that mentioned fish raining down from the sky. The young producer told me she’d first learned about it from a National Geographic documentary film which described the strange phenomenon and tried to find a scientific explanation for its occurrence. I quickly cut her off and said: “No need to explain. I’ve known about fish rain all my life.”

Fish rain is an experiential “fact,” both in the world I knew as a child growing up in Latin America and in the world of the Galey Tzahal radio producer. For me, for the kid I was almost forty years ago, fish rain was part of the cyclical nature of time, a known phenomenon, albeit local and unique to that other place and time, but still entirely concrete and real, as solid and palpable as a thick driving sleet or a big fragrant mango. For the young woman from the radio, fish rain was the subject of stories, a strange phenomenon from distant and foreign lands, a blip that would most likely vanish from the screen of her attention the moment it was explained away with proper, science-based reasoning.

To put it another way, both in the culture I grew up in, that of late 1960s Latin America, and in the culture of the radio producer, that of early 21st first century Israel, one can talk about fish rain and one can certainly write a story about it or perhaps describe it in a novel. But would the reader of said story or novel find it realistic or imaginary? A mere satirical exaggeration or a wild flight of fancy? The answers to these questions depend on the reader’s world, the baggage of experience they bring with them and the categories imprinted upon them by their culture.

A Latin-American reader reading about the Israeli navy sailing the streets of Tel Aviv (as it does in Orly Castel-Bloom’s novel Human Parts) may think that the image before them is but an augmented version of reality. After all, only a few years ago, during a period of severe flooding in Argentina, after the Argentinian army refused to come to people’s aid under the pretext that their mission is to “protect the homeland from external enemies” alone, I saw with my own eyes civilians sailing down the streets upon makeshift rafts they’d fabricated from their front doors. One of these civilians, a young man, was swimming and pushing along a door carrying a frightened dog and its owner’s personal laptop. Thus, an Argentinian read might surmise that the situation Orly Castel-Bloom describes in Human Parts is a masterfully fictionalized version of real events.

Even an Israeli reader may have more than one possible reaction to the text. “Navy ships cruising the streets of the first Hebrew city? Utter make-believe!” the reader might say to themselves. And yet a short time after the novel’s publication, Israel experienced a winter very similar to the one described in the book and several neighborhoods of southern Tel-Aviv experienced severe flooding, a recurrent plight in that part of the city. This time however, the municipal authorities were well prepared: rubber boats provided by the Israeli navy sailed the southern parts of the city, and navy crews – some in and some out of uniform –engaged in civilian rescue. The old Israeli navy song goes: “The frog people, the silent people, nobody saw, nobody heard.” Only this time, they’d been seen and heard sailing the streets of Tel-Aviv.

In writing Human Parts, Orly Castel-Bloom’s decision to send navy ships sailing down the streets of Tel Aviv was an artistic choice intended to construct – through hyperbole, caricaturization, humor, and horror – a grotesque mirror reflecting Israeli existence for the reader to gaze upon. That is, after all, the primary function of the grotesque: to represent the ridiculous, the bizarre, the twisted, and the unnatural. Comedy and satiric hyperbole in particular are the direct product of the grotesque in literature and in art as a whole. The navy has ships; certain areas of Tel Aviv are particularly prone to flooding – these are facts that are well known to any Israeli reader. The exaggeration, caricaturization, and unusual juxtaposition of realistic elements create a dark satire that elicits both laughter and tears. However, at least in this case, the truth was not stranger than fiction, it just so happened that the former caught up with the latter. The grotesque satire was transformed into realism, without having a say in the matter.

To give another example, the sudden arrival of hundreds of thousands of insects in certain geographic locations during certain times of the year is a well-known and documented phenomenon. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez makes swarms upon swarms of yellow butterflies appear as if out of nowhere. In the novel, the butterflies are linked to the loves and heartaches of a pathetic mechanic named Mauricio Babilonia. An Israeli reader might surmise that this is indeed a juxtaposition of various realistic elements. Large hordes of insects appearing all at once may bring up images of devastating locust swarms, or perhaps – if they had grown up in Haifa like me – images of the ladybugs that would invade the town every year with the arrival of spring, making magnificently lush, constantly moving red carpets of densely packed mating ladybugs that covered the pavements.

Both Castel-Bloom’s street-sailing ships and the yellow butterflies that overrun Márquez’s Macondo take perfectly realistic elements and juxtapose them in such a way as to create an image that oversteps the bounds of reality. After all, in reality, it was only inflatable rubber boats sailing the streets of Tel Aviv and butterfly swarms are a rare, albeit wondrous occurrence that doesn’t tend to depend on any particular person’s amorous desires.

The term “magical realism” is usually employed to refer to a blend or a combination of elements from the external world (the real, material world) with elements from the internal world (the world of emotions, thoughts, the imagination and symbolic representation). In other words, it is a fusion of the physical and psychological worlds. When García Márquez wishes to express, in One Hundred Years of Solutide, that Remedios the Beauty cannot continue to exist in a world she doesn’t understand and that doesn’t understand her, he makes it so that one day, while folding sheets outside her house, she is lifted up into the sky by a freak storm, never to be seen again. When, in describing the character of Rebeca, he wishes to articulate to what extent her departed parents had been her whole world, he portrays her as a girl with a canvas bag that makes “cloc-cloc-cloc” sounds—the knocking of her parents’ bones—which she carries everywhere she goes. When he wishes to depict grandparents who will do anything to maintain their image as rich and distinguished, he describes the gifts they send year after year, gifts that are meant to reflect their superiority and refinement. These continue arriving every year, until finally the last crate of gifts that arrives contains their corpses, for they have nothing left to give and no more means to keep up the appearances that meant so much to them. Similarly, in chronicling the deep connection between José Arcadio Buendía and Prudencio Aguilar, whom Buendía kills by stabbing him in the neck with a spear, García Márquez allows the murderer and the murder victim to maintain a relationship over many decades, across the boundary separating the living and the dead, and gives them the opportunity to become close friends and share a common destiny. Is there a more poignant or poetic way to express the effect the act of murder has on reality and on the souls of those involved? To a large extent, this is the function of magical realism: to meld physical and psychological realities into one descriptive reality in which events from both spheres of experience exist on the same plane, on the same ontological level, and by doing so, amplify the expressiveness of the depiction.

And indeed, when Orly Castel-Bloom sentences the State of Israel to a severe epidemic of the (“Saudi”) flu, floods the streets of Tel-Aviv and sends navy ships sailing along them, she takes a similar route. The loneliness and alienation of the individual living in contemporary Israeli reality, dangling at the mercy of fate and the twisted arms of the authorities – all these are amplified thanks to the amalgamation of familiar reality with satirical-grotesque hyperbole. Yet, in the eyes of an Israeli reader, García Márquez seems to have gone further. His willingness to tear down metaphysical barriers and cross the boundaries between the plains of reality and consciousness constitutes an artistic act that an Israeli reader would tend to perceive as containing more “magic” or “wonder” than “realism.”

What is reality and what is magical or wondrous? Every culture has a different response to this question, a response that makes it unique in relation to other cultures. Latin-American literature turned to magical realism as a brave attempt to broaden its relevancy and more faithfully communicate the reality it describes. The first great trailblazer of this movement was the Cuban author Alejo Carpentier. In his classic novel The Kingdom of This World, Carpentier describes torrid episodes in the heroic struggle led by the African slaves in Haiti against their French oppressors, a struggle that ended with the slaves securing victory and founding their own autonomous state. Carpentier traveled to Haiti in 1943 and discovered there a different kind of reality, a reality he named the “marvelous real” (“lo real maravilloso”). To the author’s mind, this “marvelous real” that he discovers in Haiti epitomized the American continent as a whole, from its nature to its history, from its countless mythologies to the widespread belief in magic as an element that can sway the masses.

In the prologue to The Kingdom of This World, Alejo Carpentier devotes entire pages to drawing the distinction between such artistic phenomena as French surrealism and the wonder he finds in the reality around him on the American continent. He sees the great effort European artists (first painters, and then later also poets and writers) put in to create “the marvelous” as nothing more than “sleight-of-hand, by bringing together objects ordinarily never found in the same place: the old fraudulent tale of the fortuitous encounter of the umbrella and the sewing machine on the dissecting table.” The matter first came to his attention in Haiti: “All of this became particularly evident to me during my stay in Haiti, where I found myself in daily contact with something we could call the marvelous real. I was treading earth where thousands of men, eager for liberty, believed in Mackandal’s lycanthropic powers, to the point that their collective faith produced a miracle on the day of his execution.” Alejo Carpentier finishes his prologue with the famous line: “What, after all, is the history of all the Americas but a chronicle of the marvelous real?”

In light of the above, it is truly curious that contemporary Hebrew literature makes such scant use of magical realism in expressing the reality with which it must cope. The Hebrew literature of our generation, at least, adheres rather staunchly to the framework of Israeli reality, barely ever venturing outside of it. Israeli time, Israeli people, Israeli sociology, Israeli issues, Israeli ideological divisions; in other words, Israeli existence and its essence are the central frames of reference for the bulk of Hebrew literature written in Israel today. And yet, surely, all the things Carpentier said to describe the reality and history of the American continent are just as (if not more so) valid for Israeli history, not to mention Jewish history at large.

The state of contemporary Hebrew literature forces us to ask a difficult question: Why is the tool of magical realism so severely underused? The question is difficult because any “why not?” forces the questioner into the realm of hypotheses, to which he can attach shadows of evidence at best, rather than any solid proof. If we wish to search for the Israeli chronicle of the “marvelous real,” we will find its best approximation in Hebrew dystopian literature. There is not much of it, but it is a literature that has maintained a consistent existence over the years and one that imagines the future of the State of Israel, of Israeli Jews and even of the Jewish people as a whole. Such an imagined, bleak, and often catastrophic future is found, for example, in Benjamin Tammuz’s Jeremiah’s Inn, in Eli Schreiber’s novels, and in the writings of Amos Kenan. These writers produce fantastic narrative frameworks in which they can freely express how they perceive Israeli existence and, in particular, the dangers that lie ahead (nationalist extremism, religious extremism, nihilism, and so on). In other words, if we borrow Carpentier’s terms, these imagined future histories are chronicles of a negative “marvelous real,” with the “marvelous” being the evil that is to come, which is what the novels seek to depict or shed light on. The future is imagined based on an interpretation of the present. The wonder is found in the shock and astonishment that the reader is meant to feel in reaction to the conclusions reached by the text, namely the picture of the future drawn for them in the present. The dystopian line in Hebrew literature comes and goes; it steps into the limelight for a moment, then recedes into the background; it waxes and wanes, but never disappears. Recent years have seen The Third by Yishai Sarid and The Ruined House by Ruby Namdar, which proudly carry on this tradition.

Nevertheless, Hebrew dystopian literature is the exception that proves the rule. It certainly does not satisfy the quandary of the absence of magical realism in Hebrew literature. In my opinion, clues to a possible explanation should be sought in the basic definitions of “Israeliness” and the foundations of the Israeli self-conception. In particular, we must pay attention to two elements that operated in Israel from the establishment of the state to the present day. The first is the desire to establish a “normal” human existence in the State of Israel; the second is the denial of the diaspora. The two elements are closely interrelated, and both have an influence on the paths that Hebrew literature continues to follow.

In Haiti, Alejo Carpentier encountered teeming nature and human beings whose imaginations were overflowing, creating a physical reality of raging chaos and constant transformation. These were the raw materials of the revolution, the emotional and conceptual matter that drove the wheels of their reality. The meeting between the two – ideas that become action and transform reality, this is the essence of the “marvelous real.” It is a reality that is “other,” all blood and pillars of fire and smoke, exploding mountains and flesh scoured with iron combs, the result of the attempt to export European idealism into the New World, a world which is both a heaven and a hell, both a divine creation and a human fabrication. The Kingdom of This World is a story of past events that reveals a reality transcendent of time (late 18th – early 19th century) and place (Hispaniola Island, which would later become Haiti). The emergence of such a perspective on American reality created the opportunity to apply the same approach to other places on the continent, in other historical or contemporary periods.

By contrast, “normality,” as a value in the Zionist-Israeli school of thought, is closely linked with a logical-instrumental approach, certainly the way it was applied by Ben-Gurion and his Mapai party. Ben-Gurion’s solution to what he termed the “Jewish problem” was to gather the Jewish people in what was then Palestine and make them into a “normal nation,” which meant creating a society, economy, politics, and individual citizens in accordance with pre-set molds and with a very clear purpose in mind. It was not a question of a return to a primordial pre-nation state, or a second Exodus – a transition from a “mass of people” into a “nation.” At its core, socialist Zionism was a movement that concerned an existing and well-defined nation, a revolution with practical rather than idealistic goals: to bring the nation to the Land of Israel, and put in on track to become practical, efficient, productive, and prolific. This was the model and the foundational image of Israeli “normality.” There would be a language, and there would be an economy, there would be an army and there would be a government, there would be transport and health, welfare and education, and there would also be culture. In the beginning, this culture would be enlisted towards the collective effort, then become more independent as time went on, but it would also take place as part of normal reality, as a constant testimony of that same reality, as a reflection, criticism or negation, but always of reality.

In a large sense, the adherence to reality is one side of the coin, its other side being the denial of the diaspora. The choice of the Bible—especially those parts related to the land and its physical aspects and to the existence of the Jewish people in this historical part of the world with its political-historical tribulations, in addition to the Old Testament literature that could justify and guide the “Zionist normalization revolution”—entailed the abandonment of the Talmud, the Oral Torah, the elements of legend, wonder, and mystery in the Jewish canon. And along with the bathwater of the diaspora and the Oral Torah, they tossed out the baby: Jewish magical realism. The didactic rationalization of Jewish history and the narrowing down of the message to be extracted from Jewish texts, sterilized Israeli literature and prevented it from exploiting the good old magic realism embedded in almost every text in the Jewish canon.

To the above, we must add the difficulty involved in “stepping out” of Jewish history in order to see both its material reality and its wonder, both the factual events and the reflections of our emotions, imagination, and dreams as expressed in these events and their various representations. It is certainly an understandable difficulty: Jewish history is long, loaded, and heavy, painful and full of pain, and worst of all, it is a history that insists on still playing a hefty part in our daily existential-political reality. As Jews and Israelis, it is hard for us look at history from the outside while simultaneously living within in. It is all too loaded, too complex, too conflicted, with too many immediate connotations that always go hand in hand with consequences regarding the eternal.

Carpentier writes about the American continent and notes that it is the only place in the world where one can encounter simultaneously, in the twentieth century, people from the beginning of the modern age, medieval reality, and almost timeless antiquity. The illustrious Cuban author lived a long life, but traveled little. He never got the chance to visit Palestine or Jerusalem, never got to personally experience the multitude of eras, realities, and cosmologies that have existed here since time immemorial. His statements in the prologue to The Kingdom of This World could not be more relevant for Palestine, the Land of Israel, the Jewish people, their history and their current reality.

Jorge Luis Borges captured the spirit of the place in his poem “Israel 1969,” in which he describes: “A lawyer or a dentist / That chatted with God on a mountain.” Borges, who was a master of melding factual and emotional-imaginary realities to create literary magic, saw the basic timeless nature of Jewish existence, the timelessness that descends from generation to generation on the axis of history. Palpable reality alongside magic and wonder.

The large majority of Hebrew literature written in our generation is not interested in this wonder. Ostensibly, it clutches onto tangible reality with both hands and believes this is the proper way of dealing with it. But not surprisingly, it is left holding only strained normality and a paucity of emotion. This is the root of escapism, of the unwillingness to look at the difficult sides of reality, of Hebrew literature’s move away from what could and should distinguish it from literature written elsewhere. It is impossible to look at Israeli reality without seeing its broad context (the Jewish, the human-universal, the historical, the Zionist-revolutionary). And the moment one casts a glance at this wider context, with all its elements, Alejo Carpentier’s words are revived with Hebrew vitality: “What, after all, is the history of all the Americas but a chronicle of the marvelous real?” That is our history in a nutshell—in the twentieth century, over the two thousand years that preceded it, and in the epochs before that—and that is our life here and now: so very marvelous and so very real as to make it impossible to describe the real without the marvelous. All it takes is a fresh gaze, with eyes truly opened, a gaze that is able to see the fish falling from the sky and say plainly and matter-of-factly: “Look, it’s raining fish,” for such is our reality.


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