A Cross-cultural Book Review: Touching by Adania Shibli and Kneller's Happy Summer Camp by Etgar Keret
- Category: Book Reviews
- Published: 09 February 2013
- Written by Lucie Demondion, Mikaël Doulson-Alberca, Maxime Zaoui
Our objective here is to comparatively review two books: Kneller's happy summer camp, by Etgar Keret, 1998, and Touching, by Adania Shibli, 2002. Our main reason for operating a comparative analysis on these two works of fiction is linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the books both provide examples of the new literary scene in the two countries concerned. Indeed, there is a departure from the classical form of writing, which consists in not taking the conflict into account, or at least, in not making it the main focus of their story. Moreover, this comparative analysis aims to highlight the emergence of what we believe may be a new literary movement.
Etgar Keret (אתגר קרת) was born in 1967 in Ramat-Gan, a small town near Tel-Aviv, Israel. He is a writer and a scholar, teaching at Beer-Shev'a Ben Gourion University and at Tel-Aviv University.
Adania Shibli (عدنية شبلي) was born in 1974, in Palestine. She works as a lecturer within the department of Critical and Cultural Studies at Nottingham University, Great-Britain.
Both have tried their hand at writing in different literary genres: Adania Shibli wrote short stories, essays, a play entitled The Error, and finally two novels which have thrust her to the forefront of the literary scene. The first, Masaas, was a bestseller and has been translated into fifteen languages; in English, it has been published under the title Touching (al-Adab, 2002) and in French Reflets sur un mur blanc (Actes Sud, 2004). Adania Shibli was twice rewarded, for her books Masaas (Touching) and We are All Equally Far from Love (al-Adab, 2004), by the A.M. Qattan Foundation, which rewards young Arab-speaking writers.
Etgar Keret is mostly known for his collection of short stories, but he has also contributed to the elaboration of screenplays for the Israeli television. For instance, Wrist cutters: a love story is a screenplay he wrote in 2006, which had been rewarded at the Sundance Film Festival. It is a dark romantic comedy based upon the short-story Kneller's happy summer camp.
However, the most famous project he is known for is the screenplay of 9, 99 $, a cartoon movie directed by Tati Rosenthal, which was a huge success.
Adania Shibli, Touching: It is a short story which describes the daily life of a young girl living in Palestine. She is the main narrator of the book, but the author never names her. The author shows her relations with her family, her discovery of love, her interrogations regarding the meaning of life (metaphysical and existential questions), her first encounter with death, etc.
However, the author's goal is not to relate the story of a young Palestinian girl, but rather to describe the period of the childhood of quite an ordinary girl, without emphasizing the Palestinian political aspect.
The author stresses the importance of the five senses through the way the book is organized. Description and narration constitute crucial aspects in this story.
Etgar Keret, Kneller's happy summer camp: is a short story too, concerning a young man, Hayim. The action starts after he has committed suicide, when he arrives in another land, a kind of imaginary purgatory, or rather limbo, which gathers people who have committed suicide together. He has a daily routine, and feels depressed when he meets Ari, another important character. Shortly after, he realizes that his ex-wife has committed suicide too and he decides to look for her. Ari and Hayim travel through the island, by car, and on their way, they meet many people such as Kneller, a secret angel who shelters people in his huge house, or Lihi, a girl who becomes the third travel mate. These three characters, Ari, Hayim and Lihi, finally manage to find Hayim's ex-wife who has fallen in love with Gabaon, a man pretending he is the Messiah, and who will promises to bring suicidal people to a kind of Paradise. Hayim falls in love with Lihi, who finally returns to Earth after the purgatory authorities realize they made a mistake regarding her death.
Ari and an Eskimo woman get together and Hayim goes back to where they started, alone. It appears that his "afterlife time" is an endless routine, with no beginning and no end.
We have chosen to focus on 5 topics in elucidating these books: the first is that of love.
Love: In both books, love is an important theme which must be studied. Indeed, if no actual end exists in these books, it is precisely because of love. In Touching, the story ends with the wedding of the main character, a wedding whose outlines the reader has to guess, since they are not clearly delineated.. In Kneller's happy summer camp, Hayim decides, after having failed two romantic relationships, to return to the place where he used to work when the novel started, that is to say, in a pizzeria.
Moreover, the authors do not share the same conception of love. Thus, their way of describing it differs. Etgar Keret uses a dark tone and colloquial words, whereas, Adania Shibli resorts to metaphors and makes the girl wonder about this feeling she has just discovered. Here, the young girl tries to understand what love is by observing adults; however, even if she knows how complex this feeling is, she does not realize the constraints linked to it, the borders between freedom and pleasure, the obstacles of family pressures and religion.
However, we can draw a parallel between the two books as they both consider love to be a game. In Shibli's, when the children get together, they play to "evol", which is, as is explained at the end of the book, an anagramme for "love"; it is a word they have imagined to keep their relationships secret. Thus, in this book, love is not the actual feeling, probably because of the age of the girl: she plays a game and in that sense, we can feel a kind of clumsiness in her way of acting.
In Keret's story, even if there is quite a pessimistic view of love, we can feel a sort of irony regarding this feeling. The author plays on words and implicitly makes fun of the characters. For instance, Hayim, the main character, who is looking for his ex-wife, means "alive" in Hebrew, whereas he has committed suicide. He finally falls in love with Lihi, whose name means "my belonging, what I own", while Lihi will never have the time to love him, since she is returning to Earth.
On the other hand, Ari, Hayim's friend, who has always mocked the feeling of love, making fun of Hayim's naivety, finally falls in love with an Eskimo woman: the status of being single he had celebrated gives way to the feeling of being constrained by love, so suffering from this feeling.
Death: Another central theme shared by those books is the presence of death, as the stories unfold. Indeed, we can several occurrences, and references to the idea of death. In Etgar Keret's book, the main characters go to a pub named The Sudden Death; Hayim works in another pub whose name is The Kamikaze.
The book starts just after Hayim's death, while he is beginning his after-life. However, the afterlife is really similar to real life: people have to find a job to earn money, they eat, sleep, and are hungry for love, etc.
However, the main difference between these two worlds is the fact that dead people remain wounded, depending on the way they committed suicide. For instance, the bartender who works at the Kamikaze died after he blew himself up and so has a mutilated body.
Adania Shibli deals with this topic by explaining the discovery of death the young girl faces when her brother died, under unknown circumstances. Here, we can see an emotional approach to death, but also a mystical approach through the main character. She tries to understand this event through the only book she knows, the Quran. She lives this episode as an appeasement; the author describes the girl as relieved, whereas her whole family is mourning for her.
Religion: Religion is another important aspect of both these books, and is implicitly tackled. In Touching, the young girl only reads the Quran, which is her bedside book. As a consequence, there are many explicit references to it. For instance, some sourates are quoted. All through the story, the girl tries to obtain answers to metaphysical interrogations through the Quran. However, when she discovers literature, she rejects the Quran and religious practices which leads her to grow apart from her family.
The mother could not read either, to be able to share the world of the girl, made of multiple worlds perched in the volumes of the first ray, of the second, and until the middle of the third one.
Each new book and each new day were digging their distance. The mother was waiting for the girl to set aside the books that separated them, the girl was somehow expecting the mother to read the books. Their two languages could be joined only in a dispute, which would precipitate the separation.
In Kneller's happy summer camp, Keret implicitly refers to the Bible, parodying some chapters. For instance, one of the characters, named Gabaon, describes himself as the Messiah. Within the Jewish tradition, the Messiah must bring peace and happiness to the world. He has to bring dead people back to life. Here, Gabaon, though he has killed himself, attempts to lead his dead "disciples" to another and better world, by persuading them to commit suicide again. Thus, we can draw a parallel between this passage and the story of Sabbataï Tsvi. The latter claimed to be a "God Messiah" and expanded his influence within the Ottoman Empire, during the second half of the seventeenth century. He inaugurated one of the most important messianic movements which has ever existed during the Diaspora.
Travel :Another important topic in both books is travel. The narrators are subject to the vagaries of life (sometimes death), and are heckled from bad to worse, in adventures in which they are more often spectators than actors.
In Kneller's Happy Summer camp, Ari and Hayim try to escape from the gloom of their sedentary life, and leave to find a nomadic love. The narrative thread reposes on this displacement in time and space, symbolized by the archetypal vehicle of freedom in modern societies: the car. As such, we see how Israeli literature, culture and collective popular imagination are heavily influenced by American cultural codes, mainly by the cinema. For Hayim and Ari The car becomes a protected and neutral space, forming a shelter. While crossing the Arab territories, they spend the night in the car and Ari insists on staying inside and locking it. Within this politically and culturally marked territory, the car is a neutral and apolitical space, which ensures their freedom of movement through this new world.
In the book Touching, on the contrary, the journey is not experienced by the protagonist within the physical world. The narrator is a sedentary character, constrained to forced immobility, and can only travel by thought.
According to the author Adania Shibli, who came to lecture at the University of Provence in November 2010, the characters in Palestinian novels do not travel. They are often frozen and impassible. The slightest movement is an opportunity to escape and break free from the constraints of the Palestinian territory, subject to so many restrictions. Their journey is mostly lived through imagination, as the daily life of the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, who are subject to Israel's blockade.
Elias Sanbar, a Palestinian historian and essayist, wrote in his Lover's dictionary of Palestine, an article entitled "travelling or visiting", in which he explains his philosophy of travel, but also admits his fear :
"I started to travel when I was very young, even though I had to do it. Rather than travelers who left to visit any country, we were actually asked to leave. So I started as a displaced person, not as a traveler, a bit like something that might have been picked up and displaced elsewhere. Finally, [I reached little by little] my goal: being always in voluntary movement, which is equivalent to being nowhere. My revenge on fate can be summed up in simple terms: you made me move? All right. I will never be found in the place where I'm supposed to be!
Of course, I traveled a lot by need, obligation and because I liked it. For a long time, I traveled, but without being allowed to "return" to Palestine. Thus, for a long time, I had the feeling of having nowhere to go back to, but only places to return to. "
Thus, the Palestinian heroine attempts to overcome physical barriers by traveling with her mind. A dreamlike journey into consciousness and imagination ensues. Her rare trips are by car with her father, never far away, not further than a nearby village. It is also a place of rest and peace: she goes there when there is too much noise at home, sometimes to sleep, but also in order to find the young neighbor with whom she plays the game of "love". Again, the car is a means for freedom, and constitutes a special refuge in which the narrator allows herself to dream and to deploy her imagination. The girl observes the world through the rear-view mirror, looking into the past, condemned to only see a reflection of the world.
The road trip of Ari and Hayim and the spiritual journey of the narrator of Touching, are symptomatic of a narrative dynamic specific to modern novels. These two short books resort to travel in order to weave their spatiotemporal frame. They show that the characters fully depend on this frame, and that their fate is already sealed regardlessoftheir actions in the world.
Despite his tribulations, at the end of the novel, Hayim ends up in the same situation as at the beginning, working as a security guard for a pizzeria called Kamikaze. Hayim finally seems condemned to immobility, waiting for an illusory love. In Touching, the girl also feels the futility of life in immobility and expectation. The novel ends more or less as it began, barely displaced by some anecdotes from which the heroine seems totally detached.
Finally, through these two characters who look so different, both of the authors describe shared feelings that gradually permeate the reader: the loneliness of the characters, the futility of their actions, the natural beauty of their stories, and sometimes, even a sense of impotence while facing their misadventures.
Fragmentary writing: Both authors resort to fragmented writing, which is jerky and lapidary. The two novels are quite thin, made of short chapters, short and effective sentences, and verbs which are conjugated in the present tense. The present predominates, as does the ellipse, as if the characters were experiencing recurring blackouts. These defects of memory must be filled in by the reader himself. However, memory is essential to preserve mankind, still more in our post-modern era. The new Israeli and Palestinian literatures seem to be aware of this and culyivate it with great clarity, whether consciously or unconsciously.
According to Pierre Garrigues we have been facing, since the nineteenth century, a questioning of the notion of wholeness and harmony. The modern era is marked by fragmentation. The loss of confidence in single and totalitarian systems of thought requires blending aesthetics and ethics. In this perspective, one can read the "fragmented writing" as an answer to the disillusions that took place after the Second World War. Pierre Garrigues quotes the horror of Auschwitz. According to him, this horror ruined the language, and the way we perceive the world - and at the same time our way of telling it - has dramatically changed.
This is particularly true in the Middle East, where contemporary literature reflects the widespread feeling of public opinion and the emotional state of society. A region battered, a divided society marked by religious wars, torn between globalization and identity tensions, between a supposedly universal faith and a relapse into radical communitarianism.
In her book, entitled Fragmentary writing. Definitions and Issues, Françoise Susini-Anastopoulos presents the choice of a fragmented writing as the result of a literary crisis. Can we really consider that both the books we are studying here are symptomatic of this literary crisis, which Barthes qualified as a "refusal of systems" ? At the end of our study, it appears that the authors want to break with the conventions of the classical rules of writing. Thus, the choice of fragmentary writing appears to be related to the refusal of a linear and classical discourse, and reveals a kind of authentic and raw way of writing. It gives the impression of disrupting the chronology, encouraging the reader to reconstruct the spatiotemporal frame through his own imagination. Thus, the imagination creates new opportunities and leaves the reader free to interpret all the possibilities which may exist.
Thus, in the book Touching, it is difficult for the reader to locate events in time and space. Adania Shibli gives the impression of wanting to describe the moment present. The only connection which the reader can operate between all these short chapters is the topic announced at each beginnings of a section (Colors, Silence, Movement, Language, The Wall).
Etgar Keret also adopts a pattern of short chapters (like Adania Shibli, who has an average of three pages per chapter).
So, how can we explain the evolution of the new Israeli and Palestinian literature? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the main subject tackled in these books, and we can feel a certain sense of measure in the authors. This modern literature is less committed than in the previous generation of writers, and which prevailed in past decades. Going from this observation, one particular question may be raised: How can we explain this evolution? We can table one hypothesis: it is the result of the failure of the peace process in the 1990s, fostering the emergence of a disillusioned youth, to which the new generation of authors belongs to. Indeed, in the 1990s, the idea of peace was deemed possible, thanks to the signature of the Oslo Agreement on the thirteenth of September 1993. It was signed by Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian cause, Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's Prime Minister, and Bill Clinton, President of the United States. This statement of principle planned for Palestinian autonomy to be reached over five years in order to advance towards peace between the two parties. The famous handshake between Arafat and Rabin was the beginning of hope for peace after years of violence. These agreements constitute a red shift in Palestinian national History. The hope of Yasser Arafat was the recognition of an independent country that would include the West Bank and the Gaza strip. From this moment, the Hamas started protesting and organized resistance. However, the main event was the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin on the fourth of November 1995 by a fanatical Jewish Israeli student. Shimon Peres became the new Prime Minister of Israel. On the ground, the economic situation gradually degraded. The "Oslo peace" raised several questions during the negotiations: the problem regarding the refugees, the question of colonization and last but not least, the city of Jerusalem, which have not been clarified. The peace started weakening when Benyamin Netanyahu, an opponent against peace agreements, was elected. After several years of discussion and negotiation, and the election of a new Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, in 1999, the Middle East Peace Summit at Camp David began in July 2000, with Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak, and Yasser Arafat. Finally, this summit was to be an unsuccessful attempt at negotiating a final status resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The resumption of hostilities and the beginning of the second intifada, in September 2000, were the symbols of this failure. How can we explain that two peoples who had been about on the verge of concluding peace, a day or two later dug up the battle-axe? This failure is, in any case, felt as a trauma by the young generation in Palestine and Israel. Suddenly, the peace which seemed to be so close, appears to be nigh impossible today. However, we can find today in the young "Oslo agreement" generation many modern writers. This new generation of writers is trying to detach itself from the previous one, by choosing another approach.
Thus, if we read different interviews granted by these two authors, each provides interesting points: according to Adania Shibli, there are new living conditions in Palestine for the Palestinians, which might be an explanation for the change in the literary styles of Palestinian writers. Etgar Keret prefers to advance the difficulty of being an Israeli writer today, and he explains how hard it is to always bear controversy and boycotting.
It's not easy to live in Israel, for sure. But for a writer, the real country is the language. To me, going to live in a place where I could not speak Hebrew would be like a form of exile.
This new generation is facing, against its will, a form of instability, the resumption of the conflict from the 1990s, and the failure of peace, has brought a new vision of writing. Adania Shibli, for instance, refers to the career of the famous Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwich:
Darwich's books are the best example. We can quote an important evolution in his style when we read his poems and his texts from the 1970s and from the 1980s, compared to those of the late 1990s, up till his death. If we follow the trend of the new generation of Palestinian writers versus the old one, so we could undoubtedly classify Darwich's last productions among those of the "new generation".
We can also understand the willingness of Israeli and Palestinian authors to stay away from politcs, even though it exists in the books we have studied. Indeed, when reading authors from these countries, it is difficult to avoid this kind of labeling, even if they just want to deal with poetic topics. Once again, we can quote Darwich who deplores the fact that the majority of the audience reads this kind of books only because the author is from Palestine, not for the book in itself:
I want the audience, the whole audience, to know the poet inside me, not only the Palestinian who is inside me. [...] I have always been claiming my Palestinianity; I am always dealing with this subject, it is impossible to get away from it. But sometimes, I am disappointed about the fact people only see this part of me.
In his interviews collection entitled La Palestine comme métatphore, Darwich wishes that a world where people were more open, more inclined to otherness, might exist. He regrets that most Palestinian poetical texts only serve the Palestinian cause, without saying a word regarding the human aspect that exists in this people. He also regrets the absence of fauna and flora, which are nonetheless abundant in Palestine. He also explains that a great cause is composed of small pieces of humanity; we can only achieve true liberation if Palestinian writers manage to get away from this general topic, to explore what Palestine's humanity is. If they don't, Palestinian literature will always be considered to be a long political document. It looks like Adania Shibli has heard Darwich; it looks as though she had responded to these sentences we have just quoted, when writing Touching. Concerning this subject, the author once said:
I don't think that Palestinian literature has been conditioned to become an instrument of resistance, as one may think. Palestinian writers, like other writers, pay attention to life, they have the right to pay attention to life in Palestine as well as the elements that characterize it. Whether they are inventive or not, depends on their sincerity and on their frankness when they observe life.
Thus, the idea of withdrawing History from their stories aims at emphasizing mankind and the universality of feelings. They would like to be viewed as fully authors. In Shibli's book, the feelings of the young girl are universal; every child on earth could feel them. It is the same in Keret's book: his characters experience love, friendship, joy, sadness, etc.
Thus, the goal of both Adania Shibli and Etgar Keret consists in revealing the humanity which exists in their characters, by emphasizing their clumsiness, for instance. Thus, if the young girl in Touching does not understand what's happening at the massacre of Sabra and Chatila, the goal is not to denounce the latter; it rather aims at making us wonder about the possibility of ever understanding such a tragedy. This withdrawal from History shows that men and women from these countries, before belonging to a political allegiance, have awareness, the right to their own thoughts. In this sense, we hope that in this review, we have shown that denigrating these aspects of their work would definitely be a mistake.
 SHIBLI, Adania, Reflets sur un mur blanc, Actes Sud, Arles, 2004, page 99.
 GERSHOM, Scholem, Sabbataï Tsevi. Le messie mystique, Verdier, coll. « Les Dix Paroles », Paris, 1983.
 SANBAR, Elias, Dictionnaire amoureux de la Palestine, Plon, Paris, 2000, pages 438,439.
 GARRIGUES, Pierre, Poétiques du fragment, Klincksieck, coll. esthétique, 1995.
 LETARTE, Martine, article daté du 17 mai 2008 et intitulé Entrevue avec Etgar Keret, controversé bien malgré lui, vu sur le site internet LeDevoir.com
 GRECH, Elisabeth, article daté du 22 décembre 2010 et intitulé Littérature palestinienne : entretien avec Adania Shibli, vu sur le site internet Info-Palestine.net
 DARWICH, Mahmoud, La Palestine comme métaphore, entretiens, Actes Sud, Arles, 1997.
 GRECH, Elisabeth, article daté du 22 décembre 2010 et intitulé Littérature palestinienne : entretien avec Adania Shibli, vu sur le site internet Info-Palestine.net