by Mischa Hiller. Telegram, 203 pages, 11 pounds sterling / $15.95 U.S.
by Mischa Hiller. Telegram, 277 pages, 8 pounds sterling
Given the walls, literal and metaphorical, that have risen up between Israelis and Palestinians, especially during the last two decades, literature is one of the few channels through which we can get a sense of what life is like on the other side of the conflict. The canon of Palestinian fiction is relatively small, especially in terms of works translated into English. Now, however, we can add to its list of practitioners debut novelist Mischa Hiller, of Palestinian and British parentage, who was raised in London, Beirut and the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam.
Given Hiller's hyphenated roots, it should not be surprising that the issue of identity, and the loyalties that follow from it, are leitmotifs of both his works: one about a teenager who must decide where his cardinal duty lies; the other about a young man living under a false identity who longs to regain his sense of self. And both protagonists, as it happens, are second-generation diaspora Palestinians cursed by the conflict over a land they've never seen.
'A citizen of the world'
Eighteen-year-old Ivan, the narrator of "Sabra Zoo" (the first of Hiller's two novels, published last year ), grew up in Denmark and Beirut as the son of a Danish mother and Palestinian father of whom we learn little beyond the fact that he is highly respected by his PLO comrades. When asked by a European woman whether he considers himself Danish or Arab, the teen declaims, "I am a citizen of the world," adding for our benefit: "I thought this sounded better than 'I don't know' or 'It depends on who I'm with' or 'Who gives a shit anyway?'"
We meet Ivan in Beirut just after his parents have left the city in the late-August 1982 exodus of PLO leaders and fighters, which was Israel's price for halting its aerial and artillery assaults on West Beirut and the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila to its south. Ivan could have gone with them, but he was persuaded by a PLO elder to stay in the city because he could be useful to the cause. "At the time it had seemed like a good idea, an opportunity to prove that I could do something worthwhile and be self-reliant for the first time," he recalls. "My mother hadn't been so keen on my staying but the truth was I saw it as a way of escaping my parents ..."
Thus, while his Lebanese former classmates begin their university studies, Ivan works as an interpreter for a number of foreign medical volunteers - physicians and physical therapists from India, Norway and Scotland - in Sabra's hospital.
Occasionally he helps out an American television journalist. And protected (or so he hopes ) by his Danish passport, he also serves as a courier for the remnant of the PLO cadre operating underground. Free of parental supervision, he spends his nights in the company of the volunteers and a few of their male Palestinian friends, drinking, getting stoned and being initiated into sex. All in all, the perfect setup for a bildungsroman against an intriguing historical backdrop.
From Ivan's perspective, the war has reached its denouement. Israeli troops still have the city surrounded. But with the PLO evicted, the bombing and shelling have stopped, and Ivan's life - except for an occasional spike in adrenalin related to his clandestine duties - has settled into a quotidian round of work and play. Even the war injuries he confronts in the Sabra hospital don't seem to rattle him. Unlike our narrator, however, we know that the worst - a paroxysm of carnage committed by the Christian Phalange militia in Sabra and Chatila - is yet to come. Indeed, Hiller's publisher describes the novel as the flip (that is, Palestinian ) side of Ari Folman's "Waltz with Bashir." And though "Sabra Zoo" lacks that film's psychological depth and hallmark surrealism, the comparison is not unwarranted.
The description of what Ivan sees in Sabra after the massacre is graphic and appropriately harrowing. But it is Hiller's restraint in describing the Israeli soldiers' protestations that they were clueless about the massacre going on in the camps - which they had surrounded to block entry or escape - that best testifies to his mettle as a novelist. Here would be just the place to give free rein to Palestinian fury. I, for one, was expecting a rant to emerge from one character or another. Instead, the narration remains modulated and focused on the march of events as the medical volunteers begin to go their separate ways, and Ivan must choose between staying put for the sake of the cause or fleeing to a haven of safety and stability.
Don't bet you can guess what he chooses.
Classic thriller ingredients
The tale told by narrator Michel Khoury in Hiller's "Shake Off" (2011 ) picks up chronologically where Ivan's leaves off. Orphaned by the massacre in Sabra, in which he too nearly lost his life, the teenaged Michel is placed with an elderly, childless Palestinian couple - Christians, like himself - in West Beirut. There he is visited by a man he comes to know only as Abu Leila, a shadowy but kindly figure who cultivates the traumatized boy and expands his horizons by introducing him to the works of leading Arab writers and even to books about the Holocaust, so as to better "know the enemy." Equally seductive is Abu Leila's intimation that he will help Michel pursue a path to avenge his parents' murder.
All this we learn in flashbacks, for when we meet Michel it is 1989 and he is a PLO undercover agent in London posing as a student. Trained in the rigors of spy craft (with which the book is replete ), among the advantages he brings to his job is a chameleon-like quality that enables him to "be taken for either Swiss or Lebanese" (the nationalities of two of the false passports he possesses ). Indeed, we're told, he has also been mistaken for "French, Italian, Greek and even Israeli." Abu Leila, whom Michel has come to regard as his "mentor and surrogate father," is now his handler. With the exception of a London-based Palestinian who occasionally serves as a courier to and from the West Bank, Abu Leila is also Michel's sole contact in the PLO's compartmentalized network.
To assuage his haunting memories, Michel has become addicted to codeine. And to ease his profound loneliness, he allows himself to become emotionally involved with Helen, a graduate student in his rooming house, though he's gnawed by the suspicion that she's cheating on him. Deception, if that is indeed Helen's game, is mutual, of course, as Michel is hardly whom he appears to be. Soon after their affair begins, he wonders whether it would be possible to have more than a sexual relationship with Helen. "The reality was that the attraction of having a relationship was in part telling her about my life, sharing its burdens," he confides. But Michel understands that the obstacles to revealing himself to a woman "were big, not least of all Abu Leila, to whom it would be a betrayal."
In contrast to Hiller's first novel, "Shake Off" is styled as a classic thriller boasting all the ingredients of that genre. The noir-like flat, clipped sentences of Michel's narrative keep the pace going even when the tension generated by the plot occasionally wanes. And in the best le Carre tradition, Michel's being in touch with feelings he's not free to act upon engages our sentiments all the more. As to his immediate plight, suffice it to say that as the saga unfolds Michel finds himself on the run, after coming into possession of a packet smuggled out of the West Bank for which one man has already been murdered. Whether out of naivete, fear or sheer discipline, he delays opening the envelope for which he is risking his life. When its contents are finally revealed to him, at the climax of a chase across Britain, Michel discovers that he's been living a lie in more ways than he knew.
As the first Lebanon war, or "Operation Peace for Galilee," as it was then called, took place before the days of satellite news stations and the Internet, Israelis on the home front could only imagine its impact on the residents of besieged Beirut. As I recall, the standard shot of the hostilities shown on Israel's sole and government-controlled TV station was of black smoke billowing up from somewhere behind a distant mountain ridge. These novels not only bring home what it felt like on the receiving end of Israel's "long arm" and misbegotten alliance with the Phalange but, by focusing on diaspora refugees, inevitably remind us that the geopolitical scope of the "Palestinian problem" extends beyond the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Hiller, who is 49, brings to his works not only a craftsman's skill but also a compassion for his characters that proves infectious. He is no propagandist, however. True, the sinister presence of Israelis hovers over both these novels, as wanton invaders in the first and relentless hunters in the second. But with one exception, as actual characters who interact with the protagonists, Israelis have only cameo roles, so that the sting we feel at perceiving our compatriots as the "bad guys" is brief. Be forewarned, though: The depth of the cruelty practiced by that one exception is stunning.
Ina Friedman is an Israel correspondent of the Dutch daily newspaper Trouw.