Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A short history of crime fiction in Israel, Part 2

Last month I turned this blog over for a day to Uri Kenan, who offered a brief, eye-opening introduction to the history of crime fiction in Israel. Uri's back now to take the story from the 1980s until today, taking in along the way perhaps the only Israeli crime writer whose name many non-Israeli readers might recognize. Uri is an engineer for a Web-design company, but before that he compiled a résumé perfect for crime writing: "market research, journalism, documentary film production, private investigation (a lot more boring than it sounds), cooking, and managing a bar." He lives in Jaffa with his girlfriend and their two children, and he writes when he can.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012
By Uri Kenan
In the fifty years between the first appearance of detective fiction in Hebrew and its breakthrough into the mainstream of Israeli culture during the eighties, Israeli society had changed in ways that rendered it unrecognizable. Wars, waves of immigration, and ideological and generational shifts have shaped a society that is in constant conflict both internally and externally.
Mirroring this conflict, every decade since the sixties has seen the appearance of a literary wave trying to differentiate itself from previous ones and reshape Hebrew literature. In this way the old taboos about writing genre fiction were eventually viewed as outdated. This opened the door for change in attitude toward detective fiction, but it would take more than that. The true key to the critical and commercial success was to make the fractured nature of Israeli society the star.
Outside looking in
Due to their many successes in various wars and conflicts, the Israeli secret services, the Mossad and Shabak  (General Security Service), have achieved international renown. It shouldn’t be a surprise, therefore, that in early attempts at Israeli detective and suspense fiction writers tried to cash in on these “brand names.” The first stories centering on Mossad agents had appeared during the seventies, but these were pulps and were written under pseudonyms.
In the early eighties Amnon Dankner, who wrote the political thriller Al Tiru Banasi (Don’t Shoot the President) was the first writer to publish Israeli suspense fiction under his own name. He was soon followed by Amnon Jackont with the spy novel Pesek Z’man (Translated as Borrowed Time), and the way was paved for scores of spy thrillers focusing on the Israeli intelligence community. None of these, however, has achieved the commercial and critical success of the Michael Ohayon and Lizzy Badihi novels, by Batya Gur and Shulamit Lapid respectively.
Saturday Morning Murder, which appeared in 1988 was Batya Gur’s first novel and it introduced her most enduring creation: Chief Superintendent Michael Ohayon. Ohayon, a quiet, sensitive man who seems more intellectual than policeman, would traverse through the course of six novels into one closed community after another, interpreting their cultural norms and taboos on the way to solving the case.

Ranging from the psychiatric community and the academia to the kibbutz, from the world of classical musicians to the ethnic tension in a Jerusalem neighborhood and the backstage of a television channel, Gur’s subjects were communities trying to maintain their identities against outside forces while serving as stages for internal struggles. As it matured, Gur’s work became increasingly political. Her resentment towards Israeli policies in the occupied territories as well as her frustration with discrimination in Israeli society featured more and more prominently. Her last novel,
Murder in Jerusalem, was a critique of Zionism and Israel society after the crash of the peace process in 2000. Batya Gur died in 2005, aged 57.

Shulamit Lapid was already an established writer when her first Lizi Badihi novel appeared. Contrary to a considerable amount of Israeli literature and film, which centers on Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, Lapid used the city of Beersheba in the Negev desert as the setting for her novels.

Badihi, a reporter for a local newspaper (a trend introduced to Israel in the 80s), was a lanky, clumsy bachelorette with a nose for a story and a natural dogged curiosity that would not back down from threats. Beersheba, normally sleepy town, appears in the Badihi novels as a battleground for passion, greed and revenge. In describing this microcosm, where everyone knows everyone else, Lapid makes use of anthropological insights, humor and even surrealism. From the ongoing rivalry of Badihi with her two police detective brothers in law to her mother’s constant attempts to get her married, from the hippies in of the remote Negev villages to the powerful bureaucrats of Beersheba’s elite Lapid’s novels are never short of color.
Ohayon and Badihi have much in common. Both are perpetual outsiders in their communities, unable to find their proper place except when busy investigating. Echoing one of the most recurrent sources of tension of Israeli society, both protagonists are Sephardic Jews created by Ashkenazi writers. In that sense they are not only tools for exploring the surrounding communities but themselves the subjects of investigations by the writers.
Gur and Lapid are the first names in Israeli crime fiction but far from the only ones. Yair Lapid, the son of Shulamit Lapid and an established Israeli publicist in his own right, has also published several detective novels; his Josh Shirman detective series is the most faithful attempt so far to bring Raymond Chandler’s style to an Israeli setting. Adiva Geffen has written suspense novels that combine detective mysteries with elements of romance. It’s also more common, these days, to encounter Israeli writers and poets who publish one-off attempts at detective fiction.
Making up for lost time
In Israel, the late eighties were filled with a spirit of change, not merely in literature but throughout Israeli culture. Post-Zionism, the critical analysis of Zionist ideology and practice, became more and more prevalent in academic circles. The most outspoken proponents of this view belonged to a group labeled “The New Historians” who challenged almost every aspect of Zionist historical narrative sparking a heated, emotional debate. This new awareness of the past led to a new appraisal of the past as subject for genre fiction. 
The first historical whodunit to appear in Hebrew was Adonis, by the poet and writer Arieh Sivan. The novel, published in 1991, takes place sixty years earlier, around the time of David Tidhar and “Sifriyat Habalsah (Detective Series),” has become a cult favorite in recent years, but only after several years of going virtually unnoticed.
Towards the end of that decade, several more novels focusing on the period of the British Mandate in Palestine appeared. Boaz Apelbaum, who had been former Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ chief of staff, wrote under the heading of the nostalgic detective. A few years later, Ram Oren, one of Israel’s most popular suspense authors, published several historical novels set around the same time period.
In 2002, Amnon Dankner published The Boneless, a mystery novel that jumps from late-nineteenth-century Paris, where the idea of Zionism was first taking shape, to twenty-first-century Jerusalem, where “new” and “old” historians are bickering over the results of this idea. A series of murders links the eras and ties the story together.
Detective, crime and suspense fiction has gone from hidden, guilty pleasure to legitimate voice in popular Israeli fiction. It has done so by the processes most outcast cultural forms go through when breaking into the mainstream: tapping into the social and cultural zeitgeist and reflecting it in new and original ways. That is not much of a mystery. What the success of crime and suspense fiction says about Israeli culture and society is, arguably, more revealing.
Despite the image it projects, both to the world and inward, Israeli culture and society is far from uniform. It is, rather, a continuous battleground for competing narratives. In the early days of Israel this competition could be relegated to a minor role because of the demands of the Israeli melting-pot project and the threat posed by the outside Arab world. Over time the narratives became more focused and sought for a place at center stage.  
The more overt this struggle has become, the more traction and legitimacy detective fiction has gathered. It is has given readers peeks at the various Israeli subgroups and, in some cases, a voice to those less often heard. The trend of historical detective fiction can be viewed as a nostalgic reaction, a yearning for “simpler days” when everyone knew his or her place, or else as a genuine attempt to reevaluate the past, in light of current ambiguities.

(In writing this article I relied upon the many written eulogies to Batya Gur as well as several of her interviews. I have also relied on Interviews reviews and biographical Information about Shulamit Lapid, Amnon Jackont, Amnon Dankner, Arieh Sivan, Boaz Aplebaum and Ram Oren as well as ,off course, their novels. As with the first post I would also like to thank Nir Yaniv and Lior Oryan for their valuable input.)
(Read Part 1 of A Short History of Crime Fiction in Israel.)

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Anonymous kathy d. said...

This is fascinating and for many mystery readers, quite an eye-opener.

I didn't know any of this about Batya Gur's thinking and writing and that of other writers you cite here.

I wonder is there are any Palestinian mystery writers in the Occupied Territories.

I'll check out some of the writers mentioned here and reread this when I can ponder the content more fully.

Thanks for this.

And for the scramble below, I must take a course in cryptography.

June 21, 2012  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Additionally, this piece is very thoughtful and I, for one, appreciate it.

June 21, 2012  
Blogger Gavin said...

I'm pretty ambivalent about Bata Gur. I like the character of Michael Ohayon, but I don't like her style at all -- it's a weird combination (for me) of literary narrative style and very colloquial dialog that I find jarring. She may well read smoother in translation.

I should give Shulamit Lapid a try -- her novels sound interesting.

I've never read Ram Oren, but my niece told me he's basically an Israeli equivalent of Robert Ludlum. (I.e. very exciting, not very deep).

June 21, 2012  
Blogger Hellen said...

I haven't read any of these authors, but I'll see what I can find translated.

I like to read crime fiction from all around the world and found this text very interesting.

June 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I suspect it will be an eye-opener for quite a number of readers. It was for me. Some of the writers are available in English translation. You can check by clicking on the highlighted writers’ names and following the links.

Matt Rees, who has written crime novels set in the Palestinian territories, said one review in an Arabic-language newspaper explained to readers what a detective was. Readers in the territories were just not used to the idea of authority operating lawfully to protect the populace. So, I know of no crime fiction from the territories, at least no published crime fiction. I visited Bethlehem and Hebron earlier this year. Bethlehem was crowded and bustling enough that I could imagine someone sitting down and tapping out some crime stories there.

As to the verification words, Blogger appears to be using house numbers as part of the code, at least one from France.

June 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And thanks for the kind words. Uri's a pretty thoughtful guy.

June 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gavin, I'd like to read Shulamit Lapid, but also Yair Lapid. I'd like to see Israeli writing in a Chandler vein.

Is Ram Oren one sign that Israel is, in some ways, a "normal" bourgeois country, with a middle class leisured enough to read thrillers?

June 21, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hellen, this is about as interesting as it gets, at least for readers in the English-speaking world, because I think this history is so little known.

June 21, 2012  
Anonymous Mrs. Peabody said...

Many thanks, Uri and Peter - this is an absolutely fascinating post, and I will track down some of the texts you mention asap.

Best wishes, Mrs. P

June 25, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

This post might well remind readers to consider the possibility of social context for all crime ficiton -- why certain types of stories emerge or become popular when they do.


June 25, 2012  
Blogger Karen Russell said...

This is wonderful! I've just requested a Batya Gur from the library and that will be my first Israeli crime fiction. Thanks!

June 28, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks.

I've done some book searches myself thanks to Uri's article.

June 28, 2012  
Blogger Gavin said...

Not sure if it's a relevant book, but I just started reading Sayed Kashua's "Second Person Singular." The material says it's a psychological mystery, but at the rate I read Hebrew, it could take me months to know how true that is :-). (The plot description doesn't sound so mystery-like)

Assuming it is a mystery, it's from an interesting perspective. Kashua is an Arab Israeli, and his protagonist is an Arab Israeli lawyer living near Jerusalem.

August 06, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The protagonist of Yasmina Khadra’s The Attack is also an Israeli Arab, though that book is more an exploration of the psychology of terrorism than a crime novel in any conventional sense. And Khadra, of course, is neither Israeli nor Palestinian.

August 06, 2012  

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