In honor of David Grossman winning the Man Booker Prize for his newest novel, A Horse Walks into a Bar, I decided to review his first ever novel, The Smile of the Lamb (published in Hebrew in 1982, and translated into English in 1989). For those who may not be familiar with Grossman’s work, I urge you to pick up one of his books for your upcoming summer beach reads.
I read this book slowly, both because the narrative is indelibly engrossing, packed with detail and depth, while simultaneously, the pace has trouble pulling you along. There is a lot to absorb in each of the characters, and I didn’t want to rush through and miss a seemingly offhand detail, that ends up of consequential importance.
It has the trappings of a classic love story—there is romance, betrayal, war, and death. However, the stories settings impart the novel with considerably more weight than the the banal back-and forth desperation of ill-fated lovers, rocking back and forth between utter desperation and mind-altering hope.
This might be the first novel in Israeli literature to portray the Palestinian “other” and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in fictional terms. The main characters are Khilmi and Uri, the former is an older Palestinian man who lives in a cave near the Palestinian village of Andal, where Uri, an idealist young Jewish Israeli, (modeled after Grossman) and his company commander, Katzman, are stationed. Katzman is having an affair with Uri’s wife, Shosh, and for all intents and purposes, Uri doesn’t appear bothered. He spends most of the novel in Khilmi’s cave, first at will, and then under duress. The story balances multiple competing plots, each chapter told though first person narration of one of the four main characters. What makes the novel compelling is the overarching echoes of cruelty paired with an overwhelming sensitivity and vulnerability the main characters explore regarding their distinct painful and tragic circumstances.
The person in whose head I most enjoyed spending time, because of his penchant for magical realism, is Khilmi, a storyteller extraordinaire. Now, almost thirty years after Grossman’s first novel, Israeli novelists shy away from such portrayals; romanticizing the other through the rhetorical tactics of mysticism. But as much as this mode of discourse is outdated and no longer readily employed by writers, it appears as if Grossman wrote the whole book only to show the world the inner-workings of Khilmi’s mind—to give his unique perspective of truth a voice. Grossman advances claims about the conflict that could only be understood through a narrative imbued with Khilmi’s logic. In this sense, he is not romanticizing the Arab other, making him exotic by imbuing him mystical qualities of time travel, weaving the past and the present, telepathy, or connecting with souls through his Lemon and Terebinth trees, but rather, the conceit itself is a statement on the absurdity and irrationality of the conflict.
Uri and Katzman, by novel’s end, have given up on any attempt to find truth or justice. I would use stronger language; Grossman spits in the face of truth or justice, or of the practical use of these concepts Palestine of the 80’s. Perhaps when the book was published, readers understood Khilmi to be the “noble savage”, but now, with the rightwards shift of Israeli politics, and religion’s outsized place in Israeli society– the reminiscence of the temples, miracles, and myriad Kingdoms, this history is advanced as a justification for the present, often in terms so ludicrous that they that verge on the mystical.
Using the past as guidebook, or excuse for the present is not just the esoteric rantings of a madman, but a practical political ploy to win more votes, and lead us further from freedom, or justice. These notions are often employed as dictates of intellectual thought and persuasion, and Grossman exposes the inherent dichotomies in using objective notions of truth and justice, in a place whose facades are so replete with proclamations of both, while on the inside, practically crumbling to the ground from their lacking.
It is my belief that the thorniest, and most contentious aspects of the conflict lie not in the settlements, or the future of Jerusalem, or where to draw the borders, but in the narrative.
Uri tells Katzman: “You see, it isn’t his cave, it isn’t the lemon tree or the grape bower. It’s the lies. It’s the blue tunnel into his right eye where words flow like fiction. . . . And whenever I argue with Katzman about the occupied territories, I answer him through Khilmi, using Khilmi’s arguments against him. That way I can slip out between the two kinds of justice.”
Grossman doesn’t abandon the notions of justice and truth outright; all the characters search for it on their own terms. In the end, Khilmi’s own logic to try and make sense of the circumstances is not romantic, its not imbuing the other with a mystical power, maybe Grossman just doesn’t believe any truth or justice exist. And if this truth remains objective, then it surely isn’t useful, “we don’t really know much about the Arabs. We buried them beneath our contempt.”
Katzman expresses similar contempt for justice, when describing his insecurity with his new position as commander, he laments that notions of justice may be just a ruse:
“But there was a nagging fear that underlay his excuses, like a pea under a dozen of mattresses, that maybe there is no justice, maybe there can never be. The concept of justice was probably insidious. He’d always felt that, only now he was condemned to take part in some cruel experiment designed to verify this hypothesis. He was governor of twenty-five thousand people who didn’t want him there. And by his efforts to maintain the framework of their daily lives, by bringing in another bus line, repairing the bumpy roads, obtaining uniforms for the junior soccer league in town, or whatever, he had only managed to compound the injustice, and bind it even more tightly to the groundwork of reality.”
Grossman is fighting back against the religious and philosophical beliefs that hold that truth will free us from all spiritual, intellectual and political bondage. Those who want to be free need to seek the truth through the data available to him or her—but what if this data is apocryphal to begin with?
“Before he told me that truth is a natural force. That’s what he called it: a strong, vital force that required nurturing and protection, though like any other force in nature, it’s utterly despotic, and can split a man down the middle in its haste to be translated into action. “
For the sake of space, I didn’t provide any biographical information on Grossman, but he has a very interesting life story, and has written many best-selling non-fiction books. So if you’re looking for a book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I would highly advise one of them. Read his Paris Review interview, here .