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Haaretz | March 20, 2008

ART etc. / Paris review

PARIS - Forty people, all pleased-as-punch, made their way to this city. They are writers. They are the 40 heroes who were selected from the entire pen-wielding community of Israel, including the territories, to represent the country at the annual Salon du Livre Paris International Book Fair. They were skimmed from the cream of Hebrew literature, because embittered types are not what's wanted here as representatives, nor are the hungry, the disabled and the sick, or the angry and the frustrated, but rather the successful types, who know how to eat with a knife and fork, and to wipe their mouths with a napkin - those who know the rules of the game of the international literary world.

This is important, because this year Israel was the guest of honor at this fair, which ended Wednesday, and the invitees were representing the country, which will soon celebrate its 60th year of independence. And even though, between ourselves, we may know just what our country is worth, it's not nice to hang out the dirty laundry. That is, it's okay in small doses, because it's important to show that in Israel, unlike in neighboring Arab countries, intellectuals are not afraid to criticize their country in the sharpest terms possible. And it's also important to show that we are in great agony, and not only because of the occupation, but also because of that Holocaust, that same Holocaust that you, our splendid hosts, are a little responsible for and therefore you basically owe us this hospitality as a bit of compensation for what you did to us. And anyway, damn it, what's your beef? If you envious bastards were ever offered several free days at a good Paris hotel, with a sumptuous breakfast, cocktails and dinners in velvet- and gold-decked ballrooms thrown in, wouldn't you take it? You bet you would.

The five-day event was held in a vast hangar at the Paris Expo. On Friday morning, three people stood on the walkway leading to the fair, distributing flyers from Union Juive pour la Paix (the French Jewish Union for Peace). They were older adults - a woman and two men. The subject of the flyer they were handing out was "Remembering and Forgetting." This is what it said: "Is it right for France to mark the 60th birthday of Israel when a ruthless war of occupation and oppression is taking place there?"

A bunch of French-Jewish youths who materialized from somewhere surrounded them and got into an impassioned argument with them. When I arrived, the main spokesperson for the young people was already quite flushed with anger. I tried to separate him from the older Jewish man, who was facing him, but he grabbed the flyers out of his hand and ripped them up. His friends joined in and pulled the flyers from the hands of the other two and scattered them everywhere. The woman ran to call for help. They took off after her and punched her in the ribs. She crumpled in pain, but managed to slap one of the young men. The leader of the pack slapped her back and then left the battlefield with his head held high in triumph.

And another scene, which the Hebrew writers were unable to see, because reality always looks a bit nicer through the dark windows of the limousine that ferried them back and forth from the Bedford Hotel near the Madeline Church to the fair, and from there to their fancy dinners. On Saturday afternoon, there was a demonstration by Palestinians on the sidewalk across from the entrance to the Expo. Not a large demonstration. Protesting the starvation of Gaza. A few women were carrying a big banner. They called on the French media to "show the truth." They cried: "The Zionists are perpetrating a second Holocaust," and "Long live the Palestinian resistance." The crowd that spilled out of the Metro and the crowd spilling out of the fair mingled together, amid the crowd of demonstrators, and looked upon the scene with surprise.

At that very moment, authors Amos Oz, Etgar Keret and Orly Castel-Bloom were having a discussion about the Hebrew language, on stage at the fair, in a hall temporarily named the "Eliezer Ben-Yehuda Room." Each of them played his or her expected role: Oz in the masterly role of one who writes highbrow, but greatly admires the workaday Hebrew of his younger colleagues; Keret as the confused guy who begins every other sentence with "You know, I think there's something to this," a Woody Allen-schlemiel type and a son of Holocaust survivors, who's learned from them to be constantly apprehensive; and Castel-Bloom as the person who just happened to find herself there and doesn't know what she ought to say, the one for whom it's all such a bother, this appearance here and life in general - as if she hadn't chosen to come here and enjoy a week of French pampering and courtesy.

When she told the audience about how she recently spent three months in Boston and how tough it was, I decided that I'd heard enough and left. Successful writers know that they need to entertain. They're successful because they know how to entertain. The hall was packed wall-to-wall. Hungry people aren't good at entertaining. That's why they make sure that the writers are completely sated and that they're given all their meals on time.

"It's not nice that you're spreading lies about us," a sour-faced Anita Mazor, the cultural attache at the Israeli embassy in Paris, said to me the next day as she handed me a cup of Coca-Cola. In the fair's Israeli pavilion was a small sitting area for the weary. "I hope you'll make sure to correct the lies." She called Sylvia, of the Foreign Ministry's arts and literature department, for help. Both were wearing pieces of jewelry in the shape of the dove of peace.

This is what the woman from the literature department said: "When an Arab country like Egypt is the guest of honor at the book fair, are you going to call for it to be boycotted, too?" She was mad at me because in my blog, I called on Hebrew writers not to become propagandists, and on French radio I'd said that, to the best of my recollection, a writer or artist whose trip abroad is paid for by the Foreign Ministry has to sign a pledge not to criticize the State of Israel or the official policies of the ministry. They didn't know what I was talking about. Afterward, they said that in fact there used to be such a form, but it had been canceled or was about to be.

If that's so, then I apologize.

After several days of anthropological observations of this tribe of writers, I realized that they are incapable of being propagandists because, as already noted, they are chiefly preoccupied with themselves, and if they weren't, then they wouldn't be writers. Or, as poet Ronny Someck said to me in the departure lounge at Ben-Gurion International Airport, quoting television reporter Ayala Hasson, who remarked when she learned about the plane full of writers taking off for Paris: "This plane doesn't need a pilot. It will take off all by itself from all the ego aboard."

Oh, the holy ego. Because of that I could have already written this article long before the trip itself. I could have written about a young writer - let's call him Yossi - who called to ask me why I thought he wasn't invited to Paris, and if it was really because he has radical left-wing views. I confirmed his fears, just so he wouldn't feel like he wasn't invited for no good reason. And why wasn't Natan Zach, the universally recognized king of Israel's poets, invited? And I could have written about Aharon Shabtai, a poet and righteous man of truth. He, actually, was invited to the book fair in Paris and was the only one who answered the appeal to Hebrew writers not to collaborate with the state, and requested that the fair organizers delete his name from its lists of invitees, saying he did not want his books to be presented there.

The rest of the writers didn't see or hear a thing. That is, they heard that some of Israel's enemies were boycotting the book fair, but they're not the kind of suckers who give in to boycotts. On the contrary: It only aroused their dramatic impulse. As was the case with that poet - let's call her Nurit - who stopped me at the entrance to the Bedford Hotel's dining room on Sunday morning, and told me about her real fear that the book fair would end up like a second Munich Olympics. And that she was against a boycott, and that a boycott hurts the one who does it. Wittingly or not, she echoed what President Shimon Peres said on French television two days earlier about the same subject. Would she have taken this same principled stance if a boycott of Iran, or of apartheid South Africa some years ago, was at issue?

We came to the dining room so that Assaf Gruber, the photographer, could snap a few candid shots of the writers. Or, as poet Agi Mishol, who left just in time, aptly said: "You've come as paparazzi." Yes, we came as paparazzi and we saw group upon group of writers sitting around the white tablecloths sipping coffee from white porcelain cups and drinking red grapefruit juice from polished goblets. Look, it's Eli Amir, and Igal Sarna, who calls to me with Israeli chumminess: "Ziffer, come here a minute," and warmly shakes my hand. And here's the Gouri couple, who do not wish to be photographed while eating, because he has a hunch there is an ulterior motive. A decent fellow, this Gouri. When we met in the duty-free store at Ben-Gurion airport he told me, as if it were a matter of urgent importance, that a mistake occurred in his new book of poems that is due to be published soon, and that his poem about Abu Dis appeared without the citation that it had previously been published in Haaretz's "Culture and Literature" section. Abu Dis is so far away from Paris.

Mr. and Mrs. Oz take their breakfast in a separate room, far from the madding crowd. They actually consent to have their picture taken. One night, in a panel discussion at the fair, the moderator called Oz the Louis XIV of Hebrew literature. And you know, in this setting, he really does look just like him. Being a king of Israel is a role you don't relinquish when you are eating, either.

Only you, A.B. Yehoshua, are not playing any regal role. You talk with everyone, you take an interest in everything. You're what's called an "authentic" guy. You shout, wave your hands, you want to convey your truth to the other person, speaking imperfect French, but plowing ahead like a locomotive with a full head of steam. I heard you on television, on Nicolas de Moran's program on France Inter. "We left Gaza, we took down settlements." You passionately asserted in answer to a question from a listener, "What more do they want?" And there was also "Israeli culture and literature have always been in favor of a solution of two states for two peoples." Alas, you are declaiming, albeit in somewhat different words and in a more convincing tone, the manifesto of the Foreign Ministry. It's sad to see that you all don't know where you live anymore, that the time has come for you to take to the street - on foot, if not in Israel, then at least in Paris.

We continued in our ambush from the lobby, with our invisible barricade - the barricade of anonymity - surrounding us. As far as the 40 guest writers were concerned, we didn't exist, since we weren't part of the delegation. From our anonymous perch, we observed Meir Shalev chatting with Etgar Keret. What do Hebrew writers talk about if not all their travels? And on the side there gathered the doleful, the suffering, the survivors, each lugging his or her own sack of troubles: Yuval Shimoni, Nurit Zarchi, Lizzie Doron. And then the poet Miron Izakson comes toward us, smiling. He's carrying a supermarket bag, apparently containing some of the kosher food and utensils he brought with him to the meal. And he tells us, with a smile, that he spent Shabbat with a Mizrahi Jewish family in a suburb of Paris. How warm and welcoming it was there, how loving, what wonderful Judaism they have here. And what a pleasure it was to attend synagogue there.

I open Eric Hazan's book, "Notes on the Occupation," to page 46. Hazan is a publisher and a French-Jewish writer, who visited the territories in May and June 2006, during a quiet period, and wrote a book about it - which went virtually unnoticed in Israel. On this page he tells about how an ordinary Palestinian family in the Nablus suburbs hosted him one ordinary day during one ordinary period of time. His young host was just 15. His mother had just been released from an Israeli prison. His brother was sentenced to 20 years and incarcerated at Tel Mond. His father had been killed. A portrait of your ordinary Palestinian family.

What was Hazan doing here? He is the head of the La Fabrique publishing house which, among other things, has published Haaretz writer Amira Hass' book "Drinking the Sea at Gaza" in French. And a selection of essays by Yitzhak Laor. And other books by "enemies of Israel," such as Tania Reinhart. He had a small, out-of-the-way pavilion at the fair; the books he publishes are nowhere to be found in the official Israeli pavilion. What was on sale in the official pavilion were books that present a marvelous Israel, which may be tormented by the situation, but still forgives itself. This automatic forgiveness is not something you find in the books Hazan publishes.

I met some of the other "lesser lights" at the fair. On Friday afternoon, Paris' Yiddish Culture House hosted an open discussion about translation from Yiddish to French. Yiddish is a serious thing here. Batia Baum, Nadia Dehan-Rotschild, Rachel Ertel and Evelyne Grumberg discussed the problems involved in translation from this language. The Israel pavilion is physically just around the corner, but mentally, it's very, very far away, so far that it wishes to emphasize that Israeliness is something special. But what exactly is so special about it - aside from the desire not to be many other things, one of which is Yiddish?

And then there was my sweet, likable colleague, Sayed Kashua. He's a Palestinian who writes in Hebrew. I wouldn't want to be in his shoes. Before the trip he was debating about whether to go. He called me and said that if he did make the trip, it would be at his expense because he didn't want to be considered a collaborator with the government of the occupation, etc. But he did come, despite everything, and in the information booklets, it explicitly said that his appearances here were sponsored by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. In one of the corridors, a charming Parisian woman hurries over to him, holding his book, for him to autograph it. "You deserve a flower," Sayed says to her with a smile, and draws one for her.

I was at one of his appearances, with writers Boris Zeidman and Naim Areidi. The topic was "I was born in another language." But the real topic, as always, was: "I'm playing the role that's expected of me." And Sayed's role is like that of the protagonist of A.B. Yehoshua's "The Lover": someone who tries to curry favor with the masters, learns their language and excels in it - until they've had their fill of him and toss him out. This was also the classic role of the Jew. Could one sum up by saying that Sayed Kashua was the only authentic Jew among the Hebrew guests of this book fair? As I was leaving the hall I heard a hint of what may lie in store, heaven help us, coming from Channel 2 reporter Gideon Kutz. He'd already gone down the steps and then came back, because he was bothered by the thought that Kashua would dare to say that he knows Hebrew. He felt compelled tell me that what he writes is not Hebrew!

The announcement for the "I was born in another language" session included the name of another participant: Sami Michael. If anyone was wondering where Michael was, he was back in Haifa. His wife told me that he prefers not to travel abroad as part of a flock, not to mention that, shortly before the trip, he was stunned to see that he'd been slotted into the more out-of-the-way sessions with the younger sheep. Because, of course, he wouldn't be allowed to step foot where the "Three Tenors" of Hebrew literature - Oz, Yehoshua and Grossman - hold forth. The Three Tenors fly first class on El Al, while the rest of the flock squeezes into coach. The Three Tenors ascended the stage of honor on the gala opening night of the fair, together with Shimon Peres. The Three Tenors simply cannot accept a fourth member, there's a limit to everything. If the club were to expand too much it might lose its exclusivity.

So, where were we in the history of the writers-vs.-writers war? Oh yeah, I almost forgot the big farce of the opening evening. A huge audience crowded into the Israel pavilion and then Peres arrived. At least that was the rumor, because about the only ones who could have seen him were his phalanx of bodyguards. And bobbing among the concentric circles of stern-faced fellows, there was a pale, bare head belonging to Shimon Peres. In all the crush, a Masonite wall - topped with some sort of construction holding up a white banner with the names of all the writers participating in the fair - came toppling down. Almost crushed our president. A hundred kilos of wall! One guy whose head was bleeding was taken away and forgotten, because the important thing was to keep things festive and not to ruin this big evening. And the names of the writers were trampled on the floor by the feet of the writers and guests who pressed in to find a spot and to bask in the glory of the honorees. Anyone who wasn't able to push his way in got to watch the ceremony on the big screens set up outside. And anyway, everyone knows by now that reality's not all it's cracked up to be and can be much more enjoyable when watched on screen. There, it's always neat and orderly; there it's dramatic and lofty; there, you don't get poked by people's elbows and you see what can't actually be seen in reality because of the ring of security people. Writers who aren't part of the Three Tenors, and publishers and literature fans and Jews faithful to Israel stood outside and didn't know what to do with themselves except to talk about how poorly the event had been organized.

And Shimon Peres spoke. Snatches of his words could be heard outside. Peres' spokeswoman had given me beforehand the speech he was going to deliver, accompanied by a request that I publish it in the "Culture and Literature" section of Haaretz, but that didn't help, unfortunately. There's a French consensus about certain Israeli symbols. Peres is one of them. He represents the fantasy of the European, cultured, enlightened, French-speaking Israel. Don't let a wall crush their fantasy.

The next evening I was invited to a dinner at the home of Mario Bettati, the special advisor to France's Jewish foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner. The invitation, written in graceful calligraphy, included brief biographies of all the invitees, along with a map. Mr. Bettati lives on a street that, with its low, old houses and greenery, has a rural feel right in the middle of Paris. Bettati has been an advisor to Kouchner throughout his career, and has also accompanied him to Israel and the territories. He told about how once, at a hospital in Nablus, they were shocked to see a bunch of children and youths, bloodied and writhing in pain, who were hurt in one of the operations the Israel Defense Forces spokesman dryly calls "a search for wanted men." It was more than the local surgeon could handle. Kouchner, a doctor by profession, pitched in to help. Bettati stood beside him as he removed a lead bullet from the leg of a small boy. He showed me the bullet, which he keeps on his desk. That evening, they met Shimon Peres and told him about what they'd seen. Peres said that it was impossible and that the soldiers fire only rubber bullets at the Palestinians. Bettati showed him the bullet. Peres said he would look into the matter. Bettati is still waiting for the results of that investigation.

He began the meal by reciting by heart several lines from Voltaire's "La Henriade," about the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in which the Catholics slaughtered the Protestants, and both killers and killed cry out to God. The conversation centered on Voltaire, and each person there had something to say about that 18th-century freedom fighter. Voltaire, who was not a puppet writer of any regime. Who was the utter antithesis of the Israeli frequent-flyer writer. When his country was perpetrating injustices, he fought it face to face. A white bust of Voltaire sat on the sideboard. And I asked myself: Would any of the Hebrew writers at the French book fair be capable of conducting a civilized conversation like this about any writer other than themselves? And just look at the culture here among this random collection of Parisians.

Bettati was Kouchner's partner in writing a tragicomedy in classic Alexandrine couplets, a parody of the French political world that had a successful stage run and was later released as a book in four editions. Like Bettati, Kouchner is a master of the classic, 12-syllable Alexandrine couplets, which reached the height of perfection in the hands of Racine and Corneille and Moliere in the 17th century.

Oh, the shame. Where are the Israeli ministers who can write poetry? Some can't even speak proper Hebrew. When it was my turn to speak, I did a quick survey of the guests. You all know the big names of Israeli literature, I said. But who here has actually ever read an Israeli book? Every last one admitted that they hadn't. And so the puzzle was solved: What was being represented at the honorary Israeli pavilion at the Paris book fair was just the outer shell of Israeli literature, and no one had any desire to look beneath the shell, for they know that what's hiding underneath is the lead bullet that Peres claims is a rubber bullet.

Who were the buyers, then? And there were many, crowding into the Israeli pavilion and purchasing the books of Hebrew writers, both in translation and in the original language. Who bought four copies of Israel Pinkas' poems in Hebrew? (All the more curious, considering that not a single person showed up for his scheduled appearance together with Emanuel Halperin, and it had to be cancelled.) The Jews were buying. The former Israelis were buying. And also some faithful lovers of the Holy Land from various countries. But the wider audience wasn't interested in Israel or its problems. The kids and young people headed for the booths selling comic books. And there was a long line where Charles Aznavour was signing his new book.

At Bettati's home, the piano was open. I asked who played. "I play, or rather, I used to play," he said. And then, as if he was talking about something that happened just the other day, he told about how when three SS officers showed up to take away his grandfather, his grandfather - who was a Jew and also a member of the underground - fled out the window. And in order to create a distraction, his grandfather first ordered the youngster to play. He played Schubert. One of the SS men sat down next to him and corrected his playing. Thanks to this piano right here, his grandfather was saved. Bettati is one-quarter Jewish. His grandfather's surname was Provencal, a family that has produced several big names in banking and science.

And I felt that the shell was coming off, and inside was the thing that we, the Israelis, have lost, the thing that no honorary Israeli pavilion in any book fair would give us back - and that is the endless richness of being both a Jew and not a Jew at once, of belonging to this culture and to another culture, of playing Schubert and reciting Voltaire, and fighting the Nazis and operating on wounded Palestinian youths in Nablus.

And to think that they travel from one country to another, Israel's frequent-flyer writers, and in each and every country they repeat the same performance that I saw here. And answer the same questions that were asked here, and express with the same passion they showed here their commitment to the country that they both love and hate. And why shouldn't it be loved, if by being its representative writers, they can go on endlessly enjoying themselves? Enjoying and crying, of course.

Two days before my trip, early in the morning, I got a phone call at my Haaretz office from a woman who complained that she hadn't received her paper that morning. I told her that she hadn't reached the subscription department, and before I transferred the call to the right number, she asked my name and I asked hers. Turned out she was the widow of the writer Shlomo Nitzan, who passed away two years ago in almost total obscurity. The man had strode upon literature's stages, had edited Mishmar Layeladim, and all that was written about him upon his death was a brief report on Ynet that evoked a half-dozen condolence talkbacks. "My name is Nehama," she said sadly, and I have no nehama (solace)."

All you successful writers, please keep this example in mind on your upcoming trips. Shlomo Nitzan was a well-known writer in his time, as you are now, and now no one remembers who he was. Because the country you so eagerly wish to represent will forget you the moment you're no longer of use to it. Others will come and take your place and no bust of yours will adorn the home of any Foreign Ministry diplomat, and lines of your poetry will not be recited at their meals. So just keep on traveling.

Posted on 21-03-2008

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