Saturday, 22 January 2011

Sara Shilo, The Falafel King is Dead

A debut Israeli novel becomes an instant modern classic, prize-nabber and bestseller with its depiction of one family struggling with private grief and public war.

The Falafel King is Dead, translated seamlessly into English from Hebrew, is a triumph of structure, intelligence and insight. It’s all the more astonishing considering that this is Sara Shilo’s debut work of adult fiction, commenced at the age of forty after a successful career working with children and in the theatre. The long gestation period was worth it: The Falafel King is Dead is a fully mature work, beautifully balanced, deep, thoughtful, generous towards its characters, intelligent and humorous despite the gritty subject matter.

The novel’s set in a northern Israeli village, a small, ordinary, struggling place with a citizenry of outwardly uninteresting people who gossip and strive, bicker, work and just about make a living. However, the broader circumstances of their lives are far from ordinary. Their daily habits are disrupted by the continual threat of bombs from the ongoing war in neighbouring Lebanon. Bomb alerts, shelters, raids, rubble and constant fear are a normal part of their existence.

Amidst this shockingly normalised tension is the specific unhappiness of the Dadon family, who are trying to recover from the death (by a bee sting) of Mas’ud, local falafel whiz and ideal husband of Simona, whose voice opens the novel, and the loving father of her children, whose own inner lives are laid out with great perceptiveness and craft later in the book. Shilo has a genius for interpreting the threat of violence and the pain of grief through the eyes of the young. There is the son who is desperate to get away from home, to work, to save money, to be promoted in his factory job and to improve himself by buying a model apartment. There are two middle boys, one of whom was born with a disability affecting his hands and feet. His much-loved brother acts for him, shaving him, taking care of him and being not just his replacement extremities but also his eyes and ears, his foil, his partner in crime and home, the sibling of his heart. There is the plucky and brave daughter who obsessively plans what to do if terrorists break into the house. The little girl’s resourcefulness leads her to devise all kinds of tricks literally to trip up any marauders; she goes about her independent resistance experiments with the indestructible bravery and pluck of a cartoon character. Then, chillingly, there are the two smallest twins who never knew their father. The young man whom they think is their dad is actually their brother, Simona’s eldest son.

Shilo’s talent in this remarkable book is to uncover every layer of every character, right down to the marrow, so smoothly that the reader barely notices how deep she is getting, how raw the emotions are, how fresh the desires. Mas’ud died six years ago but the Simona who greets us in the first chapters of the book has barely recovered from the shock. She is not a heroine, a strong woman, an independent character or a survivor; she is what remains when the effect of a death is so great that the destruction reaches beyond the dead man himself. To her, Mas’ud was perfect, the source of her vivacity and strength. Without it she has lost her beauty, her confidence and her will to live. She works in a childcare centre where her former role as resident luscious lady – capable of flirting with local officials to get planning permission and perks for the centre – has been replaced by younger, more vibrant employees. She despises the local widows, who want them to join their miserable gang. She is ashamed of her little twins, who weren’t even born when Mas’ud died, and whom she sees as a symbol of her own wantonness with her husband, an obscene sign that life prevails even when death makes its mark. One does not admire Simona and her obsessions, bitterness or neuroses. One admires Sara Shilo for her wit and intelligence in revealing the mindset and culture that created Simona and her skill in bringing this woman to grim life.

Simona has the black humour of an everywoman, a babushka or prematurely old crone who’s seen it all and powerlessly suffered its indignities, reversals and hypocrisies: “For the first twenty years, your mother, grandmother and aunts shut you down and close you up. When you pee in the bathroom, do it quietly. Don’t let anyone hear you pee. No one should see your menstrual blood. Put your hand over our open mouth. Your whole life is about closing up. And don’t forget your legs. You should practically sew them together when you sit down, so you feel like a tree. Then your wedding day arrives. The talk changes. It’s like the difference between black and white. Now they want you to open the way for your husband at night. And on the day of the birth, they want you to open everything – and not only for your husband, but also for your baby and for anybody else who might walk into your hospital room.”

Each character in The Falafel King is Dead has their own distinct voice, flawlessly rendered. The process of reading the novel, which takes places over one day, becomes steadily more affecting as you realise that each child of Simona (everyone, in fact, apart from poor sad dreary Simona herself) is desperately striving to transcend their personal situation and their locality.

The novel is a study of racism, fear and mistrust as much as it is an investigation into the pain of bereavement. Shilo excels in exploring the varieties of effect that death, fear, ambition and hope have: for the oldest son it is anger and open grief that drive his ambition; the younger sons escape into odd projects like raising a captured bird and local ragamuffinry and hi-jinks; the daughter sublimates her fear and isolation by concocting elaborate traps for the pillaging terrorists; the little twins cling to their mother with endless demands that wear her down. Shilo is an expert at rendering with pitch-perfect accuracy and great dignity and sympathy the true voices of these children, no matter what age they are. Her ear for and mindfulness of the speech and feelings of these characters is stunning. Shilo makes it possible to forgive all because her skill and insight enable us to understand all.

The poised, gradual psychology of this novel may not please everyone, but I was impressed but its underlying control. The Falafel King is Dead seems at first to represent a simple concept, a war-tale told by various family members. But there is also feeling of great rigour, structure and discipline. It deals in emotions but it isn’t sentimental. There is not a word out of place – interestingly, since one of the hallmarks of the original Hebrew text was its sometimes disjointed grammar, reflecting the emotional and political dislocation of its characters. These have been smoothed over in the translation. I appreciated the apparent calmness and ordinariness of these lives, the simultaneous running of great wit and great sadness, the tone of yearning and the ultimate profound realisation that huge emotions and tremendous depth reside in people who are, just like anyone, trying to get by and do the best they can with what they’ve got, whether they’re fourteen or forty, clever or stupid, active or lazy, dreamy or worldly, shrewd or naive. In the final reckoning all of these characters are capable of profound tenderness towards each other, a show of love which is no less great for being common.   

The Falafel King is Dead was published in Israel five years ago and has won virtually every one of the country’s major literary prizes including the Sapir Prize, the Ministry of Culture Prize and the Wiener Prize. It has been named one of the Top Ten Israeli Books of the Decade by the major national newspaper Yediot Aharanot, is on the national high school literature syllabus and is currently being made into a film. It deserves all these accolades and more – and we readers deserve more from the pen of Sara Shilo. Just as the characters in this debut wish to break free of their constraints, I would like this consummately intelligent writer to give us a wild adventure next, in action as well as feeling.

The Falafel King is Dead is available from Portobello Books.