Monday, May 21, 2012

A short history of crime fiction in Israel, Part I

A chat in Tel Aviv earlier this year convinced me that not only does Israel have an intensely interesting and little-known crime fiction history, but that that history could rapidly grow even more interesting.

My learned interlocutor was Uri Kenan, a discriminating reader of crime fiction (he likes Kevin McCarthy and James Ellroy) and of this blog who outlined a history of Israeli crime writing dating back to the 1930s. The history includes secret authorship and anti-genre snobbery, as well as an Israeli past and present that are more urban and more diverse than traditionally thought. I immediately invited Uri to prepare a guest post for Detectives Beyond Borders. Here's the first of two parts.

(Read Part 2 of A Short History of Crime Fiction in Israel.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012
“We will be like a nation like all others only after we have a Hebrew thief and a Hebrew harlot.”
Haim Nachman Bialik
(David Tidhar: Police officer, private detective, scholar, activist, crime-fiction protagonist)
By Uri Kenan
Israelis have always considered themselves unique. This is partly the legacy of the anomalous history of Jewish communities, and partly due to the fact that all national movements must emphasize their own uniqueness.  This outlook has shaped much of the history of Israeli literature.

The story of crime writing in Hebrew is part of the much larger story of writing fiction in modern Hebrew. Popular fiction for Jewish audiences existed for years in Yiddish. This included the staples of pulp such as detective, suspense, romance, and erotica. By the late nineteenth century it was a booming market, but Yiddish wasn’t the holy tongue. It was a kind of pidgin created by European Jews for day-to-day life.

One of the earliest tasks of the Zionist movement was to modernize Hebrew from a language of prayer to the language of day-to-day life so it could replace Yiddish. Although this was intended to secularize, and to some extent vulgarize, Hebrew, some hard taught traditions didn’t die. Though not viewing Hebrew as a holy tongue anymore, many still maintained that some subjects or styles weren’t fit for Hebrew. A clearly defined distinction between low and high culture was maintained for decades. Hebrew fiction was supposed to either inspire Jews in the project of building their own nation state or else help them deal with the many dilemmas and hardships this project entailed. In this world view there was no real room for genre fiction. For several decades the gap between canon literature and non-canon would shape Israeli literature and deny detective fiction its place in the sun.

For the Kids

It is no surprise, therefore, that the first attempt at writing detective fiction was justified as an attempt at education. 1931 saw the appearance of a series of short detective stories published as individual booklets called “Sifriyat Habalash” (The Detective Series). These works were written for a young-adult audience to which it was presented as a valuable lesson in the need for cunning ingenuity and self-defense. Another feature of these booklets was that they all starred an actual detective, rather than a fictional one: David Tidhar was an officer in the British mandate police force of the early twenties until he retired and became the first Jewish private detective in the country. Shlomo Ben-Israel (Gelfer), the author of most of these booklets, was experienced in writing detective fiction in Yiddish and decided to see whether their success could be repeated in Hebrew. The stories themselves were thinly veiled imitations of pulp tropes transplanted  to the setting of British-mandate Palestine.

In an attempt to make him a role model for youth, Tidhar was envisioned as the epitome of the “New Jew”: strong, brave and self-reliant.  A Jewish Sherlock Holmes who doesn’t shrink from using his fists when he needs to. Arabs, by contrast, were depicted as nefarious, cowardly and brutish. British police officers were depicted as fans of Tidhar’s detective skills whereas in reality Tidhar himself had a quarrelsome, troubled relationship with Mandate Police.

Despite its faults (or maybe due to them) “Sifriyat Habalash” was a huge commercial success selling several thousands of copies at a time when the totals number of Jews living in the country no more than two hundred thousand. Ben-Israel was hailed by some prominent writers and poets such as Bialik, Hameiri and Bash as the originator of Hebrew popular fiction. At the same time his booklets were vilified in prominent literary magazines as corruption of the youth.

Tidhar himself found his new celebrity status difficult and after a year requested his name be withdrawn as the main character. The series continued by switching to Tidhar’s former sidekick as the star, but its  sales were hurt. Rival publishers also tried to cash in on the success by publishing detective fiction of their own and also by translating works from other genres such as the Tarzan and westerns.

“Sifriyat Habalash” was discontinued in 1932 after more than fifty booklets had been published. Ben-Israel became a journalist and moved to Europe, where he covered many of the events leading to World War II. He also translated his stories to Yiddish and even wrote a full-length novel in Yiddish staring Tidhar, both endeavors achieving commercial success. The novel was translated in the 1962 to Hebrew but was only moderately successful. By then the mood had changed.

In the late forties the British Mandate in Palestine ended, and the state of Israel was born amidst war. At the same time the search for legitimacy and commercial success through the guise of education infantilized detective fiction in Hebrew. The target audience had changed from young adults to children and the protagonists weren’t grownups but kids themselves. It would be years before complex original genre stories with multi-faceted characters and moral maturity would be attempted in Hebrew.

The Pseudonym Years

In the meantime translations would prove popular through the coming decades. In this way the works of genre greats such as Hammett, Chandler, Christie and others were translated into Hebrew. Even so the old distinction between low and high brow prevailed, and these translations were all published as pulps. Detective, spy, suspense, and genre fiction in general were still deemed good entertainment, but not proper literature.  This attitude was so prevalent that in the small, close-knit literary community of the early years of Israel, association with non-canon literature could harm a writer’s career. Some translators attempted to distance themselves from their work by signing with a pseudonym, but more interestingly pseudonyms were used to hide original local fiction and mask it as foreign.

Many Israelis had read the stories of the detectives “Slim” O’Donnell or Inspector Pierro as well as the super spy Patrick Kim and the cowboys Buck Jones and Ringo in their Hebrew translations. Their authors, with names like Abie Costine, Jacques Martel and Bert Witford were supposedly American or European. Few readers knew that these Hebrew versions were in fact the originals. Israeli writers seeking to write non-canon literature, whether out of love for it or just as a way to make a living, would use pseudonyms.  Some posed as the works’ translators. Others hid any clues leading to their identities. In some cases, such as that of the name Bert Witford, several writers would work under the same name for decades eventually amassing a bibliography of over two hundred works. On the other hand, prolific writers such as Meiron Uriel and the publicist Uri Shalgy, used tens of pseudonyms each to serve them in the novel series they worked on, spanning a variety of genres.

In such a way it was possible to make a living out of writing. The pulp writers never got credit for their work, but they did manage to avoid infamy and the ire of the hypocritical society that Israel was at the time. Though many read the pulps, none would admit to it freely. Literature was seen as a tool for mobilization and national morale, not as a means of entertainment or escape. In this claustrophobic, puritanical environment, with its many taboos and sacred cows, genre fiction could only exist distanced from its surroundings. The Hebrew reading audience could be thrilled by the stories of cops, robbers and femmes fatales so long as it could safely say none of it could happen here.

(In writing this post I relied upon the works of Professors Yaacov and Zohar Shavit, who edited and prefaced The Return of the Hebrew Sleuth – An Anthology of Detective Stories; the translator and scholar Inbal Sagiv-Nakdimon, who studied the history of Hebrew science-fiction and pulps, and the blogger Eli Eshed, who writes about Israeli pulps and comic books, plus several news articles about past and current detective fiction, particularly Amnon Jackont. Perhaps most important, I have relied upon the works of David Tidhar himself: his autobiography In and Out of Uniform, his novel Crime and Criminals in Palestine and his Encyclopedia of Founders and Builders of Israel. I would also like to thank two friends for their insight and help: Lior Oryan of Bar-Ilan University and the writer Nir Yaniv.)
(Read Part 2 of A Short History of Crime Fiction in Israel.)

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Blogger May said...

Very interesting post!

I think crime fiction has always occupied a place inferior to literature. It doesn't surprise me that that should be the case in Israel as well. What I find interesting, though, is the idea that the genre was not considered worthy of the language.

Perhaps I read too quickly and missed the answer, but Kenan doesn't say if crime fiction is still only published in Yiddish and not in Hebrew.

I wonder if the same thing happens in Arabic. As I understand, written Arabic is often far more literary and formal than spoken Arabic. Does crime fiction there also get relegated to the language ghetto?

I'm looking forward to the second installment.

May 30, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't think much of anything is published n Yiddish these days; the Nazis took care of that.

I think you're right about Arabic. My fragmentary understanding, based on my reading, a trip to Tunisia, and a conversation with Matt Rees, who sets crime novels in Palestine, is that a combination of poverty, low literacy, literary snobbery, and authoritarian regimes and cultures has militated against the possibility of a crime-fiction scene.

The Algerian author Yasmina Khadra, in self-imposed exile in France, says he chose to write in French rather than Arabic because his Arabic teacher belittles his ambitions while his French teacher encouraged them.

May 30, 2012  
Blogger May said...

Do you know, I purchased a Yasmina Khadra book (in French) on a DBB recommendation, read it, and realized when I got to the end that I must have picked up the wrong book. There was death in this book also, but not the right kind.

June 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Did you buy one of his non-Brahim Llob books, which include "The Attack" and "The Swallows of Kabul"?

June 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

May, Part 2 is up.

June 20, 2012  

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