248 pages • Wilkinson House • 1 December, 2012 [PB]
“Even this intervention is more than most people are allowed, but we must break the cycle.”
On more than one occasion whilst reading this exquisitely rendered and sensitive book I was moved to shed a few tears. It’s no reflection on the capabilities of its author, therefore, that I confess to having a few unresolved problems with the structure of his first published novel.
It helps to know that Itamar S.N is a young Israeli writer, musician and columnist living in Tel Aviv, where the contemporary part of his novel, Niv, is set. This part involves the story of a highly talented but as yet undiscovered artist, Erez, who is working in a bar to earn a shekel while he paints his large canvasses at the back of a friend’s workshop.
Erez is 29 years old, gay but not actively so, preferring to give himself to his art. He does, however, have a close lesbian friend, Mickey, who is his muse and confidante. His life, though, is emotionally stunted, the main outlet for his affection seemingly being his two cats.
His eventual discovery by suave, urban sophisticate art dealer and connoisseur, Niv, turns both their lives upside down. Niv is 37, straight (or has always behaved as such and believed himself to be so), worldly and charismatic, but his attraction to Erez becomes a sexual and emotional one, with devastating crises of confidence leading to emotional breakdowns for both men.
So far so straightforward, in novelistic terms at least. But this story, set in the Israeli capital in 2011, is interspersed with another story set in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1914. This is the tale of love across the religious divide, between a 15 year-old Azeri Muslim goatherd, Anush, and his 14-going-on-15 year-old Armenian Christian girlfriend, Katya, at the time of the Armenian massacres.
In one sense both stories are, to a greater or lesser degree, about forbidden love. The gay storyline in modern Tel Aviv is hardly transgressive in its context but, for the older man, Niv, it nonetheless brings about a mental collapse when he realises that, behind the veneer of international jet-setting urbanity, he cannot face his family with the truth of his love for Erez.
On the other hand, the potential for doomed Romeo and Juliet-style love between Anush and Katya is downplayed to the extent that her family accepts their relationship and his father is only really opposed (or so it transpires) because of the bitterness he harbours in his own soul for what he took to be the betrayal of his own beloved brother. When the truth becomes apparent, Anush’s father relents, though sadly too late.
So what, precisely, is the intended counterpoint between these two stories and what conclusions are we supposed to draw from them?
Itamar S.N clearly wishes us to draw a spiritual, metaphysical parallel between the two stories, with Katya visiting Erez in a brink-of-death hallucination, or is it vision? Whether he does so satisfactorily I am still unsure. There is perhaps something too pat and over-sentimentalised about it all. It is the sort of scene one accepts readily enough in a High Romantic 19th century novel like Wuthering Heights but the modern setting of Tel Aviv seems to work against it. In that sense, Nagorno-Karabakh in 1914 seems the more pragmatic and unsentimental place. Or perhaps this is precisely the point the author is seeking to make, that the apparently relaxed, cosmopolitan world of Tel Aviv is nothing more than a thin veneer of modernity masking deep and ancient taboos in the Middle East and Levant that are not so easily overcome even in the 21st century.
There are clear parallels between the maternal love of Anush’s mother when she saves him from a fever induced by his distraught state and Erez’s mother when she rescues him from a self-destructive overdose of drugs and booze. There are moving scenes in both stories where the mothers, holding the vulnerable, naked bodies of their grown sons, are reminiscent of latterday pietas.
Yet what, apart from motherly-love, are the resonances linking the two stories? Has Katya really returned in a reincarnated form to bring enlightenment to Erez and put right the wrongs of the past? Is she really the mystery girl in one of his paintings, and if so, how did Erez tune in to her existence, and to what end? Is she the deus ex machina, or an intervening goddess as portrayed in so many allegorical works by classical artists? “Erez was shocked by the sense of profound intensity her story was having on him. He saw himself in her and her in him, physically and mentally. They really were one. He could see Niv in Anush through his kindness, intelligence and his will to please everyone, which had betrayed him at the moment of truth.”
This delicately allusive novel remains for me a bit of a conundrum, though a delightful one, which will I’m sure reward leisurely re-reading, when, perhaps, all will become clear. In the meantime, I can only recommend it to other readers in hope that they can unravel the delicious mystery that, for the moment at least, eludes me.