Beyond the headlines of flotillas, occupied territories and militant attacks are the everyday lives of those in Israel, people living in the cross-hairs of history. Jonathan Papernick’s short story collection, The Ascent of Eli Israel, delves into some of these lives with candour and tough-mindedness, an approach that belies sensitivity towards their predicament.
Each of the seven stories in this volume -- published in 2001 and re-issued early this year – is a stained-glass window offering a view of the shifting locus between identity, insecurity and a search for grace in troubled times. It opens with the dreamlike Makchyk, set at time of Israel's creation, in which a boy coming of age ventures into no-man’s land and then into Jerusalem’s Old City in search of his father, meeting holy fools, strangers and Arab youth on his expedition. In many ways, this prefigures the stories that follow.
In the Malamud-like An Unwelcome Guest, a newlywed awakes in the middle of the night to find an Arab stranger in his house, laying claim to the property. The Art of Correcting combines theology with comedy; The King of the King of Falafel relies more on broad humour for its effects; and the “six million stars” that twinkle at the close of For as Long as the Lamp is Burning up-end the unsentimental tone of the rest of the volume.
The two stories which have the most impact are, first, the one of the title, in which a formerly successful TV show producer walks a solitary and sometimes unhinged path towards personal redemption among the hills of the West Bank; and Lucky Eighteen, in which two friends, one a provocative photographer, goad those around them at a time when provocations aren’t easily understood or tolerated. (Come to think of it, Papernick himself shares something of the spirit of this photographer.)
Throughout, easy stereotypes are eschewed and craft deftly employed to arrive at unexpected endings. With its astringent humour, barbed tone, and compelling sense of place, The Ascent of Eli Israel is a significant debut. As one of Papernick’s characters tells another, “Welcome to the wild, wild West Bank”.