New Internationalist

Weeping Susannah

Issue 339

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Fiction / ISRAEL

Weeping Susannah
Mirroring the fortified society of her country, Israel, Susannah Rabin (‘no relation to’) is locked in a love-hate relationship with her mother in Alona Kimhi’s poignant, at times hilarious, début novel Weeping Susannah. Isolated from the outside world, their defences are breached when Susannah’s mysterious cousin Neo arrives from New York and attempts to coax Susannah from her cocoon. It will not be easy...

There are some people whose very existence makes you, in other words me, want to disappear. Not to let them look at you. To touch you with their look. This isn’t because they’re bad people. Or rude, or violent, or arrogant. It isn’t because they’re against you, in other words, against me. It’s just so.

Our guest is one of these people.

There are some people who the more frank they are, the more open, the more mysterious they are. The more honest they are the less you know about them. Maybe you don’t even want to know more about them, but something about their truthfulness, their sincerity, their excessiveness, gives rise in you, in other words me, to a sense of lack of information. A sense of secrecy. Uneasiness. You know that they’re telling the truth. That they’re not lying. Maybe it’s too much truth. Maybe the truth too needs to be limited in order to be open. Like the few steps back you have to take in order to see a picture by Manet or Pissarro. I know that their experience is authentic – they can encompass something and its opposite with the same degree of conviction. Every claim and its absolute opposite exists in them in perfect harmony.

Our guest is one of these people.

[image, unknown] focus

The protagonist of Alona Kimhi's story claims to have no interest whatsoever in politics. But the political tensions and historical realities of her country, Israel, cannot but make their presence felt in the book. Since the assassination of Premier Itzak Rabin by a Jewish zealot in 1995, the Arab-Israeli peace process that carried the hopes of so many has gone into decline. The policies of current Right-wing leader Ariel Sharon have resulted in increasing international isolation, mounting violence, social and political fragmentation.

Since Zionists settled in Palestine and went on to declare an independent state of Israel in 1948 there have been numerous Arab-Israeli wars. The conflict hinges on the plight of the Palestinian people. During the first decades of the 20th century Zionists organized the immigration of Jews from all over the globe to Palestine, the land of the ancient kingdoms of Israel. Nazi persecution in Europe heightened the need for a separate state, a safe homeland for Jews. Zionists purchased Arab land from absentee owners and the Palestinian peasants whose ancestors had lived there for generations were expelled from their homes. Their struggle for the return of their homeland has been pursued by the Palestinian Liberation Organization and in recent years other more extreme groups.

There are some people who make you feel ashamed. Terribly ashamed. Not ashamed of doing something complicated like taking part in a conversation or performing an embarrassing act – going to pee in the middle of a meeting or eating spaghetti. No. Just being in their presence. And it’s not because I feel that they’re better than I am. It’s just so.

There are also people who make everyone want to fall in love with them, but pure as pure can be, for the right reasons, not because they make an effort to charm. Just because that’s what they’re like.

There are some people who give rise in you to need. Some kind of need. A cosmic, incomprehensible need. So our guest’s like that, too.

And there are also people (whose numbers are infinitesimal) who immediately hit it off with my mother.

Yes. Of course. It should be obvious by now – our guest is one of them.

I don’t like our guest. He’s turned my life in our house into a suffocating prison with no way out. Not because he did anything unusually domineering. That’s just the way he is.

My name’s Susannah Rabin and I’m no relation to. I sit in my room and I don’t want to come out. I don’t want to do anything. Not even inside my room itself. Not even paint or model dolls in clay, which usually calms me. I’m careful to sit on a chair and not to lie down because when I lie down I sink into myself, and then it’s always hard. When I lie down, at first I feel relief and then I start to feel that I’ll never be able to go outside again. I won’t be able to open my eyes. So I sit.

Sometimes I want to die. Not because I’m unhappy. It simply seems pleasant to me. When acting outside becomes intolerably difficult I lie down and close my eyes and feel my universe inside myself, and it’s so calm and quiet there that even the thought of going to the grocer’s with my mother or taking a shower brings a pressure to my chest that makes me feel nauseous.

It’s the month of June and the air is starting to be dense with heat. The fan opposite me moves the air and then I feel really good, I dissolve, I let go, I merge with everything around me – the bed, the objects, the blue vase (oh, the blue vase) – there are no boundaries between the inside and the outside.

She said: oh Avram, do me a favour. I'm not your mother, I'm your wife

The guest arrived on the day of the elections. But he didn’t sit with us and watch television till late at night and wait in suspense for the results. He slept. My mother prepared my father’s study for him, which my father never used for work – he worked in his office at the theatre. But he argued that a man needed a study. This was during the period when my mother received her reparations from Germany and we moved into this apartment, which is much larger than the old one, and my father got his study. He would shut himself up in it for hours and sometimes I would peep through the keyhole and see him reading, mostly poetry. Pushkin, Rilke, Akhmatova, Byron, Blake. The room smelled of oranges, cigarettes and the breath of a sleeping person. Even in the summer, when there weren’t any oranges. When I went inside my father was always pleased and he would read me something from his book, and even when I couldn’t understand the meaning of the poem I could feel the hypnotic rhythm, which riveted me, until I learned to read poetry myself and I became as addicted as him.

My father had two reading positions: lying on his back on the bed with the book in his hands and his legs up, carelessly crossed in the region of the ankles and leaning against the wall, or lying on his stomach with the book on the floor next to the bed. Sometimes he would play Russian songs on his guitar. They were called romances. They were sad and obscure, and when the spirit took him he would perform them for my mother and me and translate the words. Even though he only knew a few chords, he would play and sing with a melancholy fervour, his head cocked to one side, his eyebrows coming slightly closer to each other and creating two vertical lines between them, and a dreamy look in his eyes directed at the neck of the guitar. Sometimes I thought that if you licked those lines they would probably taste bitter, like the peel of a lemon, and once I even did it – I hugged him and licked the space between his eyebrows, to see what it tasted like. It really was bitter, but more like cocoa without sugar together with the taste of a baby. And the most important thing is that there was always a lock of black hair falling with glorious asymmetry to cover the right side of his forehead and his eye. Even when he was already bald and he was still playing the guitar I would imagine that lock of hair, as if it was some integral part of his being, like a character trait.

Atvari potsikhanku kalitku
I vidzhi vdzhivini sad slovno tzhen
Niye zabudzh potsimnuyu nakidku
Kruzheva na galotku nadzhen

My mother, who already knew the translation of the words by heart as well as their phonetic sound and who would sometimes move her lips together with his, always sighed at the end and said something about the over-sentimental Russians and pulled a hard face. She couldn’t forgive him for his cheating, and he couldn’t control himself. Once I heard him say that it wasn’t that he loved women – they simply loved him, but for his part he loved only her, and she said in a hard voice with a tremor at its edge: Oh, Avram, do me a favour, I’m not your mother, I’m your wife, and turned away to do something in the kitchen which involved a lot of noise of pots banging into each other.

Quietly open the little gate
And enter the enchanted garden
like a shadow
Don’t forget the dark scarf
And the lace on your hair

I remember all these things vividly, and our games too, the jokes with the forbidden obscenities, the book of Greek mythology he would read to me at every opportunity, until the foreign stories in old-fashioned Hebrew became an indivisible part of my world of images and daydreams: the cunning Odysseus, the handsome Paris, Midas of the golden touch, all the denizens of Olympus, the heroes of Greece and Sparta with their muscular bodies, their uncompromising nature, their eternal quarrels with the capricious gods, who alternately made alliances with them and tormented them. All this I remember and much more, but this isn’t the time to plunge into the depths of the past. Let the dead years rest in peace.

It's a screw-up. An evolutionary screew-up

My boundless love for my father, the memory of the pain of his abandonment, live in me every day, like underground water lying at the base of every thought and every act. I never cease to be amazed at how the pain and despair that a certain person can cause you don’t do the right job and make you hate him. Or forget him. It’s a screw-up. An evolutionary screw-up. Possible only with human beings. Nature’s distorted and dependent children. My father in his death left me, abandoned me without any axis of security inside me that could have helped me go on without him. He was my life. And, by logical inference, from the moment he was gone my life would never be the same again, or perhaps it wouldn’t be a life at all. I was lucky to be able to carry on and survive. This was, of course, thanks to my mother. Thanks to her devoted care, thanks to her endless sacrifice. Because she dedicated her life to me and mingled it with mine until it’s impossible to know where I begin and she ends. Hers is a completely different love from my father’s. He never thought that I was weak or in need of help. On the contrary. In his eyes I was strength, endurance and order personified. Sometimes he behaved as if it was he who needed me. And in fact when he was alive I never felt needy or helpless the way I’ve felt ever since he died.

His room remained my secret temple. A temple I would sometimes go into, lie down on his bed, my face buried in his old bedclothes, trying to draw even a little strength from that vanished past where I left myself light years ago.

Into this room my mother put the guest.

Weeping Susannah by Alona Kimhi is translated from the Hebrew
by Dalya Bilu and published by Harvill Press, London, in August 2001
(ISBN 1 86046 903 5). www.harvill.com

It may be ordered on www.bookshop.blackwell.co.uk
or via Blackwell's International Mail Order Book Service;
tel: +44 1865 261355 (24 hours);
fax: +44 1865 261355;
e-mail: extra@blackwellsbookshops.co.uk
Alternatively through www.amazon.com (North America)
and www.amazon.co.uk (Britain).

[image, unknown] Author Profile Alona Kimhi was born in the Ukraine in 1966, emigrated to Israel with her family at the age of six and currently lives in Tel Aviv. [image, unknown] She studied drama and has worked as an actor, journalist, playwright and director. In 1996 she published a volume of short stories, Lunar Eclipse, originally published in Hebrew as Ani Anastasia,which was awarded the prestigious ACUM prize for literature. Weeping Susannah is her first novel.

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