Ayelet Gundar-Goshen: The unseen
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s debut novel One Night, Markovitch, published last year, is a funny, sensual and unshakably poetic reimagining of a true-life story in which an unremarkable man agrees an arranged marriage to a beautiful woman, then reneges on his promise of a quick divorce. In her second, Waking Lions, the mood darkens as she examines the psychological repercussions when a respectable doctor flees the scene of an accident that kills an illegal Eritrean immigrant on a remote road in southern Israel’s Negev desert.
Here, she again takes real events and fictionalises them to explore themes of self-awareness, intimacy, and the human capacity for good and evil, ignorance and indifference, concealment and deception. The story is rooted in a haunting hit-and-run she heard about on her travels after she finished her military service over a decade ago.
“I was travelling in India,” she tells me, “and when I was in the Himalayas there was this one Israeli guy in the guesthouse where I stayed who didn’t sleep for several nights. It was very clear that something was wrong, because he was wide awake all the time, staring into space. After a few days I went up to him and asked what’s going on, and he told me he’d hit an Indian man while riding on his motorcycle. Afraid of going to prison, he panicked and just left him there – with a $100 bill pinned to his chest. The idea that you know you’re doing something wrong, so you take out your wallet; it’s such a capitalistic response. And then deciding how much you are going to give: 100, 200, 600? I was fascinated by it, because you read about people in the newspapers who hit and run, and you immediately think of them as evil. But this guy looked almost like a teenager. He was twenty, had a guitar, he read the books that I read, he looked in a way like me. To think that someone like me can do a thing like that…”
So why transfer the story to this particular part of Israel?
“I knew I wanted it to be a story about a white man hitting somebody and leaving him, but I didn’t want it to be a 400-page novel about a man just sitting about in his comfortable living room feeling guilty. I wanted an outsider’s eye. And then came the thought, what if somebody had witnessed it? What if something that you thought nobody else knew was seen by another eye, and by someone who’s usually not noticed? What happens when the unseen person is the one who sees? And then I thought it could be the man’s wife, and that was when I realised it has to be Israel, and it has to be the African refugees, the unseen people of Israel.”
This is a section of Israel’s population that’s not much written about. Is that why you brought them into the story?
“Exactly, because they’re not even considered as part of the Israeli population. The authorities won’t even say that they’re refugees, because giving them that title means all sorts of benefits that the government doesn’t want to give them. Less than one per cent of those coming in are acknowledged as refugees. So you have about 45,000 people living right now in Israel without a clear definition of who or what they are, and it’s like they don’t exist. It’s not a question of whether they’re here or not, it’s a question of do we bother looking at them? If you sit in a restaurant, then you probably have an illegal refugee cleaning your table; or in the supermarket he will probably be the one carrying the bags. But you never stop to think, does this person carrying my bag have a family? Does he want to kill someone? Does he want to sleep with someone? You just don’t think about it.”
I wanted people to finish Waking Lions not talking about the characters, but talking about themselves… it’s always much more interesting to ask yourself what would you do if you were in the same situation.”
You told me last year when we chatted about One Night, Markovitch that you feel that literature “sometimes has to be about punching you in the stomach.” You certainly don’t pull your punches with this book. At what point did you realise it would be tonally very different from Markovitch?
“I knew from the beginning it was going to be a contemporary story, and if Markovitch had something of a fairytale atmosphere, here you have a certain place, which is the desert, a certain time, which is now, and in that respect it’s very different. It’s like an Israeli noir in a way. But in both stories I really wanted it to be like a punch; I wanted people to finish Waking Lions not talking about Eitan, the doctor, but talking about themselves. Asking themselves: if it was me speeding in the desert on my way home and hitting someone that looks totally different, and my family’s waiting for me, my kids, my partner, would I be capable of doing what he did? I think it’s always much more interesting than judging the character to ask yourself what would you do if you were in the same situation.”
I saw that an early review in the Jewish Chronicle also called it ‘Israeli noir’. Is that a label you’re wholly comfortable with?
“I think it’s because it’s so different from Markovitch. I’m not sure it’s so noir, but I love the idea of taking the basic elements of a thriller – even a cheap thriller, like the low-budget films you see late at night on TV – taking this really basic mechanism, but trying to pour into it real psychological depth. This mixture of genre I think is very playful – not to be afraid of having a strong plot that also explores inner thoughts; not having to choose between them.”
Events are certainly shown at a very intimate scale, as well as via an escalating sequence of connected incidents that crank up the tension. There’s sexual chemistry as well as common humanity between Eitan and Sirkit, the refugee’s widow who coerces him into setting up an illegal nighttime clinic for the immigrants; and you do seem to have set out to get under the skin of every one of the characters that you put on the page.
“I’m really happy you say that, because it was really important for me, especially in depicting the refugee’s wife. At first I only wrote from the doctor’s perspective, and I thought the whole story would be only from his perspective, which is to say liberal but fundamentally racist, and then I realised I want to get under her skin as well.”
The novel falls into two parts. The first third or so is essentially from the doctor’s point of view, and then it broadens out and Sirkit really comes to the fore.
“I think after I’d heard him long enough it was like saying, ‘OK, I know you now, I’ve been inside your head, now please shut up and let her speak a little bit.’ Because he has all these fantasies about what’s going on in her mind, and they are all projections. But she has her own fantasies and dreams too. And it was so important to me for her not to be this noble, good-hearted woman. That would dehumanise her. She deserves to be more than just a victim. Working in the human rights association in Israel we talk about it a lot, that because these people are victims of society, we’ve tended to look at them as victims in all other respects, as noble people that we treat wrongly. And that’s not fair, it’s preventing someone from being a full person. A full person also does bad stuff.”
A German review pointed out that the book “defies easy categories of good and evil, hero or anti-hero. Each character carries every possibility within them.” I guess this is conveyed in the title: if you wake a lion, you can expect sudden and brutal consequences as instinct takes over.
For the doctor, what happens that night is like this lion came out and did something and he’s trying to lock it back in, but it’s out there.”
“Exactly. It’s taken from a poem in Hebrew, which goes something like ‘We’re so crazy, lions roared in us all night.’ I liked this idea of a hidden predator that sleeps inside you and wakes up in the night. The poem is very sensual. It’s not just about brutal instincts, it’s also about this whole life within you that you usually don’t encounter, or you encounter only in your dreams. Like when people wake up from a dream and they’re embarrassed to tell it to their partner because it was either very sexual or very violent; there’s a part in you that you don’t really allow to wake. And for the doctor, what happens that night is like this lion came out and did something and he’s trying to lock it back in, but it’s out there.”
When Eitan goes to visit Sirkit at a detention centre, she’s wearing a hand-me-down T-shirt bearing the slogan ‘My Netivot’, a reference that will probably go over the head of most non-Israeli readers.
“Netivot is the name of a small settlement in the desert, quite close to the Gaza Strip, and the people there are mostly Jews of Arab origin, who were kind of thrown there and forgotten about. During the 2012 attacks from Gaza, before they came to Tel Aviv, the missiles fell on Netivot, and then suddenly there was this patriotic act of wearing shirts with that slogan on. I was furious about it because nobody cared about those people living there for forty years, unemployed and with lousy education, but when missiles are falling then everybody is suddenly all patriotic, calling it ‘mine’. So Sirkit gets given this T-shirt supposedly meant to support other people that Israeli society really doesn’t give a damn about, and she goes around bearing a slogan that she doesn’t even understand.”
How much time did you spend visiting those kinds of institutions, and around Negev?
“I lived for a year in the desert, doing community work in Beersheba, and I work for the Israeli human rights association, so I knew a lot about the refugees’ case. But in a way it was important for me not to fall too much into detailed research. I think sometimes instead of trying to go under people’s skin, or into their minds and their hearts, we go into details – like when Eitan looks up Eritrea on Wikipedia. I don’t think that’s really the way to gain knowledge. I think the way of gaining knowledge – that’s why I like literature – is trying to put yourself in the shoes of the other, through empathy and not through details and research.”
East is East producer Leslee Udwin has an English-language film of One Night, Markovitch in development, and nowWaking Lions is being adapted by Israeli director Ra’anan Alexandrovitz, who is best known for the documentary The Law in These Parts. Working on three sets of revisions on Markovitch over the last year has diverted Gundar-Goshen from her planned third novel. Another distraction has been the time she likes to spend with her young daughter.
“Having a child is like somebody kidnapping your heart; and how are you supposed to write when someone’s holding your heart hostage? But I really hope this May I’ll be able to sit down properly and finish it, because I miss it a lot.”
Can we expect something different again?
“Well, it’s once again about that moment of decision: one moment where you take a decision that changes everything, that reveals you to yourself in a way that you couldn’t imagine before. That’s what happens when Markovitch refuses to let Bella go; that’s what happens when Eitan discovers that he’s not the good man he thought he was. So the third novel is similar in that somebody’s doing something that changes everything around him and how people view him. It’s contemporary like Waking Lions, but the language is much more like Markovitch.”
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen was born in Israel in 1982, holds an MA in Clinical Psychology from Tel Aviv University, and has worked for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Her film scripts have won prizes at international festivals, including the Berlin Today Award and the New York City Short Film Festival Award. One Night, Markovitch, her first novel, won the Sapir Prize for best debut. Both One Night, Markovitch and Waking Lions, translated by Sondra Silverston are published by Pushkin Press.