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The Jerusalem File

 

A late Southern writer used to lecture his students to “never compete with the camera.” Discuss.

The relationship between film and fiction is a complex one. If you happen to be a fiction writer, sooner or later, civilians will ask you when you are going to pen a screenplay (which is a little like asking a painter when he or she plans to take up sculpture). Still, the common engine of novels and movies is the simple act of storytelling, and the best examples are a cross-pollination of the two.

Joel Stone’s The Jerusalem File (Europa Editions, 2009) seems to acknowledge this influence from the start: “Let’s begin this way. Levin went to the movies.” The Hollywood parallel is obvious: Levin, a bored retiree from the Israeli security service, agrees to tail the cheating wife of a university professor. And yet, despite the setup (old hat to anyone who’s ever put in two hours at the Cineplex), this novel is a rare hybrid of thriller and character study.

The strength lies in the setting; the author stamps our passport to Israel by grounding us in the heart of Jerusalem. A love triangle that traffics in all the usual private-eye tropes takes on greater depth against its Middle Eastern backdrop, the dualism of the region coloring every detail. Levin, described as a “gray man…with a rainbow mind,” notes the contrast built into daily life as he roams from Jewish West Jerusalem to Arab East Jerusalem (“It was a poignant world, when the smell around the bend could be uncollected garbage or sweetly aromatic lamb”), as he reflects on the nature of Jewish-Arab friendships (“The worse things got between their people, the better friends they felt they had to be”). Identities are divided: Levin’s mother, despite being among the first lucky wave of post-WWII refugees from Europe, feels more Russian than Israeli. Likewise, Levin cannot escape being tugged in two directions as he daydreams of relocating to France.

Stone’s carefully curated details never let us forget where we are: We’re in the land of both the Tower of David Museum, set among ancient ruins, and the King David Hotel, where you can sip a martini in upscale surroundings. In a Jewish café, patrons sit at the back to protect themselves from potential bombs. When visiting Arab East Jerusalem, Levin takes an Arab taxi for added safety. The author successfully capitalizes on the heightened sensibilities of the area—even an encounter with an insurance salesman is tinged with menace.

As it turns out, our real destination isn’t so much the conflicted Holy Land as it is Levin’s conflicted soul: in retirement, he is slowly whittling down his attachments to his friends, his expat children, and his ex-wife; he keeps waiting for his pet fish to die; he manages the present by visiting the past (“In Jerusalem, the past was everywhere, but a museum walled it up for you, tied it down, so it wouldn’t jump you by surprise”). With skill and dark humor, Stone imbues his protagonist with powers of observation that increase the more he tries to withdraw: “There they were, she and her baby—mother and child—the smallest of families.”

The story moves at a good clip without sacrificing the “eye” in “private eye.” Stone’s descriptions are precise yet evocative: You can practically feel the sun as it beats down on cobbled alleyways, Dead Sea mud drying on your cheeks. The only weakness is the unsatisfying ending—this is not a typical whodunit—but after all, its lack of conclusion is in character for a part of the world that seems to knows no resolution.

The Jerusalem File was published posthumously. Stone’s first novel, A Town Called Jericho, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

 

Elegy for a Fabulous World

 

Alta Ifland, who grew up in Romania and came to the United States in 1991, has published a French-English book of prose poems called Voice of Ice, and in a progression that seems natural for the Ha Jins and Joseph Conrads of the planet, has transitioned to writing directly in English. Her story collection, Elegy for a Fabulous World (Ninebark Press, 2009), deals with subjects familiar to readers of immigrant fiction: the compare-and-contrast between the old world and the new, the relationship between the “truthful lie” of the mythic past (a natural subject for a formerly Communist land) and the rootless present.

The book is divided into two sections: “There” and “Here and There.” In the Land of Ifland, the difference between existence and nonexistence is largely a matter of memory. In the terrific “The Wedding,” an Eastern- European woman who is visiting her homeland with her American husband thinks of memory as “a monster with a core of snow and sorrow, who keeps the body tied to the past, in a shadow-like world that may not be very different from the so-called world of the spirits.” In “The Girl, the Professor, and the Wife,” a woman’s gestures are described as coming “from that remote past that distills the forgotten ancestors and makes them reappear under the most unexpected shapes and circumstances.”

Ifland’s writing is breezy, witty, and fable-like. In “The Road to Dombrad,” a caged bear—as remembered through the lens of childhood—devours the town’s children. In fact, some of the best passages involve the viewpoints of the youngest people: “For every child there is, in the universe where he moves, a house to which he assigns an idealized, mythical meaning.”

The influence of Calvino’s Invisible Cities can be seen in “A Week in Our Town,” where each day is reserved for a particular event (raining upward, for example, or assembling the town’s monkeys), while “Harry and the Tree in His Lung,” is reminiscent of Boris Vian’s L’Ecume des Jours (translated in 2003 as Foam of the Daze), in which a woman has a water lily in her lung. My only reservations about the surrealistic mode is that it sometimes creates distance between reader and narrator; likewise, Ifland’s tendency to withhold proper names (characters are referred to as the Mother, the Daughter, the Wife) makes us work harder to get a handle on an individual.

For those of us who marvel at the Nabokovian ability to write—and write well—in a language other than your first, Ifland has written an essay on her Web site in which she waxes eloquently on the advantages of writing three degrees removed from your original tongue.

But perhaps her fiction has already managed to convey the same idea: “At night I can still hear my Uncle Otto’s cries, and his tears stream down my cheeks, and when dawn comes, I try translating them into all the languages I know, for this is the only way I can stop looking back.”

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DIKA LAM was born in Canada and lives in Chicago. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Story, One Story, Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops 1999, This Is Not Chick Lit (Random House, 2006), and A Stranger Among Us (OV Books, 2008). She was a New York Times Fellow at New York University, a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers' Conference. A nominee for Canada's Journey Prize, she is also a winner of the Bronx Writers' Center Chapter One contest.

11 responses to “Love & Squalor: Passports to the Past”

  1. Judy Prince says:

    Dika, once again I am enthralled with your reviews, your wonderful ability to pull a reader into a book, and even into the author’s mind.

    • Dika Lam says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Judy! Just wondering…do you agree that writers shouldn’t compete with movies?

  2. Judy Prince says:

    Dika, novels and films are the “later” of the written genres (as distinct from plays and poems, for example), and each has a firm hold in popular culture.

    You ask if I agree that writers “shouldn’t compete with movies”. Yet it seems an accepted fact that many novelists write with an eye toward having their novels made into films. Hard to imagine that a novelist would refuse the cash from her novel being transformed into a film. Also, plenty of gifted writers (who have perhaps written novels) write screenplays—-again, p’raps, with money figuring large in their motivation.

    You may be suggesting that novels are the “preferred” literary medium, not films. Of course, strictly speaking, you’d be correct, because words, not visuals, are the medium. Is film, therefore, an inferior medium to novels? I see no inherent reason why that should be so.

    My own personal preference is to see a good play rather than read a good novel or watch a good movie. My heart and soul are invested in plays and their centrepiece of words. But I’ve been gobsmacked by the occasional novel and movie whose words sunk wells of awareness into my psyche.

    Do give me your views on these matters, Dika. I’d love to know them!

  3. Judy Prince says:

    Dika, I love the sheer immovable force of Ifland’s words, of her revelation upon which we build our own self-revelations: “At night I can still hear my Uncle Otto’s cries, and his tears stream down my cheeks, and when dawn comes, I try translating them into all the languages I know, for this is the only way I can stop looking back.”

    Often, as with babies and children, our best technique is distraction from our crying and head-slamming. A little translating would do wonders for distractions from pain!

    Queen Elizabeth (the first) knew many languages fluently, and would delight in her tutor’s technique of having her translate her thoughts into Latin and then translate them back again. She was a remarkable woman who learned much from her ferociously violent past.

  4. Judy Prince says:

    Hi, Dika—–I don’t see your 8 May 2010 “Love and Squalor” post on the main page, for some reason. There’s room for it and others, but it’s not there. Admin, help?!

    • Judy Prince says:

      Thanks, adm, for the quick response. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten the comment I was going to make to Dika.

  5. Vicky Mlyniec says:

    Dika,
    I am so glad to have stumbled across this web site, and your section in particular. It’s wonderful to find thorough and engaging reviews of little known books, especially books that seem to have such merit. It’s good to know that someone is keeping an eye out for the rest of us. The Jerusalem File, which I just ordered, has an Amazon sales rank of more than 500,000. Thanks for shining a light on it.

    Vicky Mlyniec

  6. Dorothy Stone says:

    I was delighted to come across this site when scrolling to see if there was anything new showing about The Jerusalem File—my husband’s posthumously published novel. I was indeed pleased to find Dika’s review. You might find it interesting that the original title was Backdrop to Limbo. The unresolved ending fits in with his view of the region. I hope the review will bring Joel many more readers.

  7. Dika Lam says:

    Dorothy, I’m fascinated to hear about the original title and glad to hear you enjoyed the review. I, too, hope that others will discover Joel’s work.

    • Dorothy Stone says:

      I forgot to mention that the tite change was the publisher’s choice, not Joel’s or mine. The book was accepted for publication after Joel’s death (bittersweet, bittersweet) and the publisher felt it important to include Jerusalem in the title so that the reader would immediately be aware of where we were. I could see his point and acquiesced, but I do believe the ending would make more sense to readers if the book had retained Joel’s original title… However, I was, and am, most happy to have the book in print. His earlier book, A Town Called Jericho is out of print but available in libraries and at used book sellers found on the internet. I highly recommend it.

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