“Sometimes I think things I know are not true.”
Avishag states this to herself, having been called into her commander’s office for almost running over a cliff during a fraught chemical attack simulation, in one of the opening episodes of Shani Boianjiu’s début novel, “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid”. Hearing this line for the second time at the author’s reading at London’s Jewish Book Week on February 26, it seemed as if the sentence and the episode are representative of the atmosphere of the entire novel, which blurs the novelistic divide between fantasy and reality.
When we spoke prior to her talk, Boianjiu acknowledged that her novel walks a “narrow line between reality and the surreal.” It does not fall back on the tricks of magical realism, with people tumbling out of aeroplanes landing safely in the English Channel or, as she put it charmingly, featuring “flying donkeys.” Everything in the book “could technically happen in the physical world,” but at the same time it does not follow that it would. Her book is very much a work of “pure imagination” rather than a reflection of personal experience.
The mood Boianjiu creates is one in which the reader is never quite sure what is real and what is not, particularly as the narrative becomes darker and more fantastical with each episode. The novel is also rather unsettling as its characters endure boredom and repression while manning a West Bank checkpoint or guarding the Sinai border. “One of the most challenging things in life is boredom,” Boianjiu said. The actions of her protagonists are, in part, a reaction to the tedium of military service.
Boianjiu’s novel also gives life to groups who have been underrepresented in Israeli fiction and who “don’t get a voice in Israel.” The focus is on “female friendship and on being a young woman in Israel today,” she said, but it also features characters from geographically peripheral communites. “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid,” therefore, is a “marginal story,” which looks at Israeli society from a “different angle.”
Boianjiu does not see her novel as any sort of political testament. Rather, the intent was “to write about young Israelis as ordinary people,” encountering them “as human beings in the smallest and biggest ways” from falling in love to buying socks. Her characters are neither “glorified nor demonized” as critics searching for a political message might wish, but are part of a book that recognises human frailty and life’s ambiguities.
It is for this reason, too, that she disputed the assertion put forward by A.B. Yehoshua at his talk on Sunday evening that, because the novelist “deals in the writing with morality,” there is “in a time of crisis, a rational tendency to turn to the writer.” The novel, she counters, is a very different form compared the political essay. Novels, while being “a celebration of humanity,” are not always clear or moral — “a good novel brings up more questions than it answers.” The demand that the Israeli novelist always keep two different pens, as it were, is “unfortunate,” for they “don’t get to just be a writer.”
Aside from being a fresh examination of Israeli experience, the originality of Boianjiu’s text derives from her manipulation of the English language. Her controlled voice, terse sentences, and bright metaphors are points of light in a dark novel. “The more interesting phrases in the book come from the dialogue between English and Hebrew,” she said. “When you translate from one language to the other, it forces you to think about the language.” Through writing in English, Boianjiu was able, in a roundabout way, “to explore the Hebrew language.”
But, as an Israeli, does she feel in any obligated to write to Hebrew — to be, as Amos Oz once put it, a chauvinist for her language? “I did feel guilty about not writing in Hebrew,” Boianjiu said. Sure, “English has many more words than Hebrew,” but the latter is “a living and breathing language.” It is, she said, “like a cake that you put in fridge and it absorbs all the smells of its surroundings.”
Jewish Book Week comes in the middle of the publicity tour for Boianjiu’s novel, having been released in the United States in September, and in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe from this month onwards. Between travelling, Boianjiu is working in cooperation with an editor on the Hebrew translation, which presents its own challenges. And to the critical question of whether she’s working on something new, she said she’s writing a second novel, though she wouldn’t divulge the subject matter. This time, though, she’s writing it in Hebrew and English.