|THE NEW REVIEW|
|Review included courtesy of TTA Press|
Gilad Atzmon is a noted jazz saxophonist who was born in Israel, but lives in voluntary exile in London. He is a passionate anti-Zionist and internationalist. He sets out to explore these concerns with a novel set in 2052, when the state of Israel has been defunct for 40 years. Citizens of the former Israel live scattered around the world: "the first wave of refugees came fleeing Jewish fundamentalism, the second wave came fleeing cataclysmic war."
Atzmon's story touches on many issues, including exile, ethnic cleansing, nationalism, anti-Semitism and Jewish identity. The fact he uses humour is admirable. But he chooses the wrong protagonist, a certain Gunther Wünker. Gunther serves in the Israeli Army in the 1960s, enters another kind of service in the peace movement and finally moves to Germany when he has had enough of his native land. Revelling in the delights of guilt-ridden German womanhood, he becomes a professor of philosophy and founds his own branch, 'Peepology' - the study of voyeurism. Gunther is a total schmuck and literally a tosser, hence the name Wünker. In fact, Gunther’s masturbatory activities have earned him comparisons with Philip Roth’s Portnoy.
The novel is really a 150-page monologue by Gunther, with an appendix by the fictitious German Institute for the Documentation of Zion. Gunther is grubby, pompous and boring. Characters don’t have to be sympathetic to engage the reader, but they need some complexity, wit or emotion. Gunther, however, sounds a single and very monotonous note as he relates his sexual obsessions and misadventures. There is a dated whiff of the '60s to all this, when some guys in the countercultural ranks seriously believed that jokes about wanking 'n tits 'n bums were not only hilarious, but bound to bring the current social order crashing to its knees. So, will Gunther’s musings on female ejaculation get Prime Minister Sharon & co quaking in their boots? I don't think so.
While reading this book, my Inner Social Realist was yammering: 'I’m interested in what the author is trying to do, but couldn’t these issues be explored better with a character who isn’t such a toss-pot misogynist? And why are all the other characters so lacking in presence? Why are all the women characters so wimpy?'
'Shut up!' I shouted back. 'This is a satire, dammit! This is ironic! This is how he’s making a critique!'
So I sent the old Inner Social Realist packing. And yes, there are some funny and effective moments in the book. Gunther shoots himself in the foot and becomes a ‘hero’ accidentally; he joins the peace movement in order to get laid. There are amusing speculations on the extra-terrestrial origins of pitta bread and other culinary specialties of his homeland. There are terse passages relating Gunther’s war experiences.
But that still left open the question of whether this book succeeds as a work of fiction. So this is satire. But what of the speculative satirists - Kurt Vonnegut springs to mind - who still create fully-realised characters, stories and settings? So much of that is missing here. I found, for example, that there is surprising little sense of place in most of the novel. Though I was kept up to date on who or what Gunther was shagging, I often lost track of whether he was in Israel or in Germany.
When Gunther is invited back home for a conference of Palestinian colleagues in Peepology, it looked like the book will pick up. So what is life like in the mid-21st century Middle East without Israel? Are people in Palestine really free? Well, there are more jokes about pitta and hummus, an obervation that the Jewish settlements on the West Bank are the now the dodgiest slum areas, a suggestion from the assembled Peepologists that mutually arranged rape-days will heal the breach between the two communties in a situation where "sexual restraint is a symptom of lack of mutual respect''. Er, perhaps this was meant to attack misogyny in both Israeli and Palestinian society, but it didn't quite hit the mark.
When Gunther is back in his hotel room, he falls asleep while he’s meditating on the mountains and desert of his childhood. Then it’s back to business as usual! Our man Wünker dreams he’s in the desert with his favourite (plastic) girlfriend: 'I go on fucking like a real macho man and she squeals.' Ho-hum…
Reproduced with permission
Rosanne Rabinowitz’s published fiction includes stories in The Third Alternative, Visionary Tongue and Roadworks, plus a contribution to The Slow Mirror: New Fiction by Jewish Writers and Deep Ten. She has reviewed books for TTA as well. She lives in South London with a venerable 16-year-old cat, and sometimes works as a freelance sub-editor on various magazines and websites. She has also been a life model, oral history researcher, part-time mental health worker, full-time doley and an editor of the late great Bad Attitude, a feminist mag ‘devoted to the overthrow of civilisation as we know it’. A graduate of the Sheffield Hallam MA in Writing, she has completed Noise Leads Me - a kind of anti-capitalist vampire novel set in Brixton ( looking for a forward-thinking publisher unfazed by genre boundaries!). Currently she is working on a second novel about a woman leader of the Adamites, a wild, anarchistic free-loving movement in 15th century Hussite Bohemia.
|GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED
by Gilad Atzmon
(Serpent's Tail 2002)
Reviewed by Rosanne Rabinowitz
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