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|A Review of: Ten Thousand Lovers
by Toba Ajzenstat
Ten Thousand Lovers, set mainly in 1970s Israel, tells a love story,
but the central concern of the author is to examine Israeli society
and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lives of her
characters. Edeet Ravel was born in Israel but grew up in Canada.
She returned to Israel to do an undergraduate degree at the Hebrew
University. She has a PhD in Jewish Studies and she is a peace
Lily and Ami are the two central characters of Ten Thousand Lovers.
Lily, the narrator of the novel, has lived in England for many
years. She is now writing a highly focused memoir that relates the
central emotional experience of her life-the short but extremely
intense period of seven months when she and Ami were lovers more
than twenty years earlier. As the novel opens, Lily is a twenty-year-old
student at the Hebrew University. Though born in Israel she, like
Ravel herself, has grown up in Canada. She meets Ami, an engaging
Israeli man, one autumn day as she is hitchhiking from Jerusalem
to Tel Aviv. They are immediately drawn to each other. Ami informs
Lily that he is an army interrogator. We learn later that he's
employed by the Shin Bet, the Israeli secret service. Lily, who
calls herself a pacifist, is horrified. This is exactly the type
of man she does not want. But as it turns out Ami's sensitivities
match Lily's more than she could have imagined. He is deeply
conflicted about his own work and its consequences. He abhors and
rejects the use of physical violence to extract information from
the prisoners he deals with, but he has no control over what the
other interrogators do. Nor can he direct any other aspect of his
Ten Thousand Lovers is about Lily's and Ami's love but it is also
about the journey both make together as their relationship develops.
Because of Ami's work and his struggles with it Lily becomes aware
of and preoccupied with problems she sees everywhere. Lily takes
us inside Israeli society. We follow her into various communal
environments: her dormitory at the Hebrew University, her childhood
kibbutz, a poor neighbourhood in Tel Aviv, Arab villages, and, by
way of what Ami relates, into interrogation rooms. The reader sees
what Lily sees and is caught up in her fears and angry questions.
We get a sense of the tensions that exist between Jews and Arabs
in everyday life in Israel, and we are exposed, at least in passing,
to varying viewpoints concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
as voiced by various characters.
What Ravel does in these passages rings true; she presents quite
an accurate and not unbalanced picture of aspects of Israeli society
and the tensions in it. She also asks some important questions.
This is worthwhile, as far as it goes. The trouble with this
relatively short novel is that Lily does not linger in any one of
these environments for long, and she doesn't probe deeply. She takes
what she wants from them, comes to some convenient conclusions, and
moves on. Similarly, the characters we meet, though they may be
passionate and appealing, nevertheless come across as one-dimensional,
even Lily and Ami. There are moving moments in Ten Thousand Lovers,
but instead of pausing to let the reader absorb something more
meaningful about a character and his or her concerns, Ravel rushes
us from one scene to another.
That is because Ravel's main purpose in Ten Thousand Lovers is to
score a number of political points, ones that are critical of
Israel's policies, and so the more literary elements of story-telling
assume a secondary importance. Her desire to mount an argument is
especially apparent in the breaks she introduces into Lily's
chronological recounting of the events that took place in the 1970s.
In these breaks Lily makes comments from her present day vantage
point. It is a way within the overall framework of her story for
Lily to address us more directly. The breaks also allow her to add
nuance to the tale with musings on language and biblical references
that would otherwise interrupt the narrative flow. The starting
point for her digressions in these sections is often the etymology
of Hebrew (and occasionally, Arabic) words which appear in her story
or just words she wants to tell us about. The historical and biblical
references are interesting, but again these are too obviously
selected for purposes of reflecting critically on the attitudes and
behaviour of Israelis.
The problem with Ten Thousand Lovers is not that Ravel is critical
of Israel but that her criticism is directed solely at Israel. To
view Israelis as entirely culpable, to deny the legitimacy of their
security concerns, is to blind oneself to the barbaric attacks
indiscriminately directed not just at Jewish Israelis, but at the
countless immigrant workers and even Israeli Arabs.
A crisis comes in the novel when several of Ami's co-workers beat
up a young Palestinian prisoner from the occupied territories who
has been arrested for breaking a curfew. The young man later dies
of his injuries. Ami's frustrations, which have been growing for a
long time, reach boiling point and he decides to quit his job. In
an outburst of anger he proclaims "...the occupation won't
last for ever, and one day we'll have to account for everything.
We'll have to look back and face it all. And we're going to see
then, looking back, that we didn't do it for security, or out of
fear, or despair, we did it because we were corrupt and sadistic
and out of control." Is this Ami speaking in the anguish of
the moment or Ravel grinding her ax? The novel goes completely off
the tracks for me here. There's nothing in what follows to counter
or balance Ami's statement. For Lily, Ami's is the definitive
assessment of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and
it seems Ravel is in agreement. By refusing to consider the serious
concerns motivating the majority of Israelis here and throughout
her novel, Ravel has signalled to her readers that she is unprepared
to deal with the excruciatingly complicated reality at the heart
of this conflict.