Virgin territory. That's where I've been for the last ten days. An unexplored terrain that has allowed me to come into contact with a plethora of life stories and characters deftly brought to life by a very skillful journalist/novelist.
Linda Grant is an author with whom I was only acquainted through the columns she's penned occasionally for The Guardian and The New Statesman. On the strength of her articles and essays, I decided to put one of her books in my Christmas wishlist: The People on the Street: A Writer's View of Israel. It hasn't disappointed me. Linda focuses on the human behind the mask, whether it be Israeli or Palestinian. Judgements are rarely made, assumptions left behind and any attempt to understand the hatred (and love, because that also exists) shared by both sides is based on the experience of those living in Israel first and foremost.
To me, however, it all looks rather new. And that's because when it comes to the decades-long enmity between Arabs and Jews, I'm very ignorant. Involuntarily ignorant, I hasten to add. And there are strong reasons for this into which I will go later.
Non-fiction writing occupies a special place in my books collection. It's the territory to which I decamp when I want a slice of real life, served by an author with an insider's knowledge of the subject. Whether it is a memoir, a biography or an observation, it matters not. I crave this treat especially when I've finished a heavy volume. In my case I had just read Cuba's very own Ulysses, Paradiso, and I longed for a less complicated narrative.
Less complicated shouldn't be understood as "easy" or "banal". Linda is a clever writer, with a very timely sense of humour. Just when you think the book is leading you into dire waters, she rescues you and puts you safely on shore. She is impartial and non-judgemental but also has strong words for both sides. That element appealed to me a great deal, since sometimes non-fiction, especially where politics are involved, can be very boring. More specifically the kind of politics that have an effect on current conflicts (think of the Northern Ireland situation). Some authors bestride the fence so much that occasionally I feel like shouting at them to take a side, for God's sake!
That, luckily, doesn't happen in The People on the Street. Beginning with a short account of Linda's childhood in Liverpool and her confrontation with her Polish-born father in her teenage years and moving swiftly to her brief stay in Israel in 2003, the book is full of portraits of the people who make up this nation. Some passages invite the reader to put him/herself in the shoes of the citizens. Here's an example:
"If you are a Palestinian, the Zionist state must seem to you like a relentless military machine, cold, heartless, inhiman, ruthlessly efficient in its domination."
But then, a couple of pages later she redresses the balance when a pro-Palestinian, Israeli woman declares à propos de a woman suicide bomber who had pretended to be disabled in order to avoid the metal detector at the checkpoint: "That woman did a big disservice to her people and her own gender. It's the same as when they transported military equipment in ambulances."
As a reader, when I choose a non-fiction book as a temporary companion, I find myself unconsciously demanding evidence of the topic written about. Especially when it deals with well-known events. A couple of autobiographies come to mind: The Long Road to Freedom by Nelson Mandela and If This Is a Man/The Truce by Primo Levi. The South African freedom fighter is a great storyteller but sometimes whilst reading his magnum opus I felt as if he were protecting me from something bigger, like a great danger looming large over me. Like the full horror of the apartheid system. I didn't like that. I'm old enough to withstand whatever life throws at me. Also, I wasn't expecting him to be ambivalent about the struggle for which he'd given up so much. And yet, this trait also endeared him to me and made him more human in my eyes. With Primo Levi there was a similar dilemma. Did I want to read yet another book about the Holocaust? But you would be wrong to think that all this ex-chemist from Turin wanted to write about was Auschwitz. If This Is a Man and The Truce are more about human endurance and survival. I confess that I went looking for the average tale of torture, gas chambers and Nazi brutality. Instead I found a beautifully written account of what is like to live through hell. And come out of it alive.
Do we, as readers, sometimes prejudge the content and, above all, the message of a non-fiction book based on what we expect of the author? And is this approach ever right? My ignorance of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict stems from my Cuban upbringing and education. We were never told that Israelis were Jews. And that's for starters. Whenever Israel was in the news, it was usually spoken about in a derogatory way because of its closeness to the US government. I grew up without being able to make any distinction between an Israeli tank knocking down a house belonging to an Arab family, and a Palestinian suicide bomber. Thus, it's through authors like Linda Grant and their unbiased position that I've become more acquainted with the history of this rather controversial and heavily disputed territory. And she seems to share my view. Here's her own opinion on writers' duties (if any): "Contemporary readers make great, perhaps intolerable demands of literature; they require it more and more to bear witness, to conform to the work of journalists, to make a moral case. People are always asking writers if they think that art can change the world..."
Just like it happened to me when I finished Nelson Mandela and Primo Levi's autobiographies, I find myself now trekking through a terrain that, although widely known and discussed, is slowly revealing itself to me. Despite my doubts, The Long Road to Freedom gave me a very good insight into the kind of fight Mandela and the ANC waged against the racist South African government. Primo's book taught me about survival and resistance, also showing me along the way that you needn't be explicit about horrors in order to get the reader to understand them. Linda Grant's The People on the Streets has convinced me that when it comes to political non-fiction, it's better to have an open mind. After all, that'll be the only 4x4 we'll need to explore what for many of us will be virgin territory.
Next Post: “Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music”, to be published on Sunday 15th July at 10am (GMT)