Cheating death in Tel Aviv

March 02, 2010
Assaf Gavron's CrocAttack!
Assaf Gavron's CrocAttack!
CrocAttack!, a novel by the Israeli writer Assaf Gavron, published on Thursday, should be particularly interesting for British readers. It tells the story of a young resident of Tel Aviv who narrowly misses being killed in terrorist attacks during the second Palestinian intifada, which began in 2000. Gavron, who is 41, was in London working on the novel when the 7/7 bombings took place, and when I met him in Tel Aviv last year he described how he watched as the bombings began to have the same psychological impact on Londoners that the almost daily attacks had had on Israelis a few years earlier: paranoia side by side with detachment. “We were the professional bomb victims,” he says.

The novel is structured around two converging first-person narratives: Eitan’s, the young Israeli who lives in hip, secular Tel Aviv, and that of Fahmi, a Palestinian of around the same age who lives in a refugee camp and becomes a terrorist. Gavron admits it was easier for him to write Eitan, who is loosely based on himself. To write Fahmi’s sections, he drew on his experiences serving in the Israeli army in Gaza during the first intifada in the late 1980s. “It was the first time that I saw how Palestinians lived,” he said at a reading for Jewish Book Week on Monday. But although it was harder to write Fahmi, Gavron says he felt a need to at least attempt to give a Palestinian perspective. “There is hardly any Israeli literature in which you hear such a voice,” he said.

CrocAttack! is actually Gavron’s fourth novel, but his first that focuses on the conflict. Interestingly, it has not been as critically or commercially successful in Israel as the previous three: most Israelis apparently do not want to read about such things, especially in a novel written in part from the perspective of a Palestinian suicide bomber. However, it is the first of his novels to be translated into English, and was published in Germany two years ago. Such is the international interest in the subject that in Israel writers who tackle it are often accused of exploiting it for commercial purposes. Nevertheless, “it’s our life,” says Gavron. Now living in Berlin, he is currently writing a novel about Jewish settlers.

And CrocAttack! is not just about the conflict. For me, the most interesting theme in the book is not terrorism but time. Gavron says he was drawn to the contrast between the fast pace of life in Tel Aviv (the start-up that Eitan works for, for example, aims to shave seconds off the time it takes for directory enquiry services to give information over the phone) and the slower rhythm of life in the Occupied Territories, where Palestinians are forced to sit and wait at checkpoints. Yet time is universal; it unites not just Israelis and Palestinians but, in the end, all human beings. In fact, it seemed to me that the preoccupation with time in CrocAttack! made it an almost existential novel. We’re all, as he put it at the reading he gave last night, in “a race against time.”