One of Israel's great national authors can finally be read in English. Sixty years after Israel's birth, his words remain resonantby Ruth Padel / June 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
Khirbet Khizeh by S Yizhar (Ibis, $16.95)
Preliminaries by S Yizhar (Toby Press, £14.99)
Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy, a central text in the modernist canon, was published in 1951. Two years earlier, an equally powerful modernist novella, Khirbet Kizeh, appeared from the Israeli writer Yizhar Smilansky (who took the pen name S Yizhar), writing not in French, like Beckett, but in Hebrew, an ancient tongue reforged as a spoken language less than 100 years earlier. Yizhar was born in 1916 in Ottoman Palestine, the son of an idealistic Russian immigrant who farmed by day and wrote journalism at night. Khirbet Kizeh was a tale not, like Beckett’s, of existential angst, but of ethnic cleansing and a crisis of conscience in an individual soldier. It is only now, two years after Yizhar’s death, that English audiences can finally read it.
The resonant and elegant English of this translation conveys Yizhar’s beautifully cadenced sentences, oblique interior monologues, loving descriptions of landscape and poignantly exact descriptions of dignity in humiliation. The story shows a bunch of young soldiers clearing the inhabitants out of a peaceful Arab village during Israel’s war of independence. Under orders, they take control of it, killing and wounding a few villagers in the process and load into trucks the few hundred women, children and old people they have rounded up. One truck driver wonders why they aren’t allowed any belongings or water.
“There’s no stuff,” the soldiers tell him, angry at being forced to voice this appalling detail. “There’s nothing. Take them away from here and let them go to hell.”
The soldiers tell each other that these villagers are “like animals.” Then the narrator voices a moral qualm: “Are we killing them?”
“We’re taking them to their side. It’s very decent of us…”
“What’ll happen to them there?”
“Let them ask their… leaders.”
“What will they eat or drink?”
“They should have thought of that before they started all this.”
“Started what?” says the narrator.
“Stop thinking so much!” shouts his colleague.
This message was as controversial in 1949 as it is today. Thousands of Israeli Jews rushed to buy the book. Critics saluted its literary quality. Here was Israel’s own literature, a tough pastoral for a tough land. Its moral challenge touched everybody. A Palestinian journalist called it a sign that peace was possible. Israel’s military censors tried to ban the book but failed. (Thirty years…