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 so engrossing, and the pace does not really pull you along. There is a lot to absorb in each of the characters, I didn’t want to rush through it and miss a detail mentioned seemingly offhand, that may end up being consequential.
It has the trappings of a classic love story—there is romance, an affair, war, and death, but it contains much more than the usual dichotomy that plagues lovers; alternating between utter desperation and mind-blowing hope.
This might be the first novel in Israeli literature to portray the Palestinian “other” and the conflict in fictional terms. The main characters are Khilmi and Uri, the former is a Palestinian 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 seem to mind. 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 the sensitivity and vulnerability the main characters explore regarding their difficult circumstances.
Khilmi is a storyteller, this is where the magical realism sets in. Now, almost thirty years later, Israeli novelists shy away from these portrayals; romanticizing the other through the rhetoric 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 But as much as this mode of discourse is outdated and no longer readily employed by writers, it appears as if Grossman wrote the whole book only for Khilmi—to give his unique narrative of truth a voice. Grossman makes a statement 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, or telepathy, connecting with souls through his Lemon and Terebinth trees, but rather, making a statement about the conflict, and its absurdity.
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 in a place like the West Bank. And maybe thirty years ago this mysticism might have led the reader to look at Khilmi as the “noble savage”, but now, with the rightwards shift of Israeli politics, and religion’s outsized place place in Israeli society, our historical past is commonly being used as a justification for the present, often in terms that verge on the mystical.
Using the past as an excuse for the present remains no longer merely the esoteric rantings of a madman, but a practical political ploy to win more votes, and lead us further from freedom, truth, and justice. Truth and justice 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 where the thorniest aspects of the conflict lie 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 give you any biographical information on Grossman, but he has a very interesting life story, and has written succesful 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 ).