Human Parts: A Novel

by Orly Castel-Bloom
ISBN: 155263230X

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A Review of: Human Parts
by Bill Gladstone

It is a time of unceasing bewilderment, sorrow and emergency in Israel as nature turns unfathomably malignant, producing not one, not two, but three national blights. First, a strange and unprecedented series of cold fronts sweeps through the land, pummeling the populace with mighty snowstorms, hailstorms, downpours and lightning flashes that seem reminiscent of the ancient Biblical plagues. Second, a powerful and often deadly viral contagion called the Saudi flu is in the air, prompting widespread fear and suspicions of covert biological warfare. Third and perhaps most devastating, a gruesome procession of bus-stop atrocities, shopping mall horrors and highway ambushes has stunned the nation and turned it inward; the unrelenting terrorism is destroying the last vestiges of public life. Yes, nature has gone amok, and none of Israel's soothsayers or scientists can adequately explain why.
In Orly Castel-Bloom's fifth novel, Human Parts, the man-made phenomenon of terrorism is presented as a sort of frightening natural process, as uncontrollable as the wind, in a world that has turned topsy-turvy. "The peace process with the Palestinians, in all its phases, collapsed like one of the roofs that gave way under the weight of the snow," she writes with an historian's detachment, pinpointing the moment when things went from bad to much, much worse in Israel.
By confronting and mythologizing about current events, Castel-Bloom has gone where other writers might fear to tread. Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld, whose books are set mostly in the Holocaust era, recently opined that decades must pass before he and other literary artists can adequately depict the current terror onslaught in their work. "What is happening here in Israel has to wait 50 years or more to become literature," he said. "We are now in the journalistic phase." Fortunately, this imaginary artistic boundary hasn't prevented Castel-Bloom from producing an engrossing and transcendent work that bears affinities to certain Biblical texts, most notably the Book of Judges, and to various memorable contemporary works of low realism, such as Quentin Tarantino's brilliant and violent 1994 film, Pulp Fiction. (Like Pulp Fiction, Human Parts contains a gruesome pun in its title; besides the obvious grotesque meaning relating to dismembered or chopped-up bodies, the title also suggests the theatrical-type roles that all of us fulfill as players in the large drama of life.)
Hailed by the New York Times as "the first novel to chronicle life amid the current intifada," Human Parts presents a grimly ironic snapshot of daily life as experienced in every strata of Israeli society from the president to the impoverished. Focusing on a troupe of fictional characters, the book presents their stories in installments as in a soap opera. Despite its multiple plot threads, however, Human Parts seems to be a national epic about a people faced with a crushing set of antagonistic forces; it brilliantly records, with an historian's keen fidelity, the realistic voices and idioms of the nation as it sinks into a mood of funerary despair and existential panic.
Castel-Bloom's roving omniscient eye relates the opinions of taxi drivers, soldiers, ER orderlies and nurses, doctors, tourists, weather forecasters, radio announcers, pedestrians. "Many Israelis fell ill with Saudi flu that winter, and some died of it," she writes. "The situation was so bad that almost every day there were new victims of both the terrorists and the Saudi flu to document and count. Taxi drivers, who served as the barometer of the general mood, told their passengers that the government policy of restraint towards the Palestinian Authority was to blame for everything. It was the policy of restraint that had led to the sharp deterioration in the population's immune systems so that whoever didn't die of suicide bombs or car bombs died of Saudi flu . . . . "
As in War of the Worlds or Day of the Triffids, Human Parts offers an elaborate reconstructed history of a quasi-apocalyptic time. It resembles Daphne du Maurier's tale The Birds for its portrait of an ordinary world in which, inexplicably, certain natural elements turn antagonistic. While the repeated storms reflect a natural order that has gone berserk, the beleaguered children of Israel are simultaneously beset with a legion of social ills-the list includes racism, corruption, familial discord and poverty-that seem reflective of their own sins.
To help them cope, the perplexed populace looks to a host of professional diviners and prognosticators such as professors, intellectuals, military leaders, political commentators, religious leaders and television weather forecasters. For further spiritual uplift, they feed on an unending diet of television soap operas, news and game shows. Because its fantastic blend of game shows and soap operas offers the perfect escape from the bitter external reality, television occupies a hallowed social niche in Castel-Bloom's tragicomic dystopia-until each new terrorist attack or freak blizzard intrudes to break the powerful spell of denial and unreality.
Rather than focus on the single heroic or tragic story of a single protagonist, Human Parts follows a diverse troupe of representative types, seemingly chosen by lot from the whole of Israeli society. Typical for works of low realism, the unobtrusive third-person narration presents a series of truncated "slice of life" dramas that collectively offer a muted pastiche of comedy, irony, tragedy, satire and farce. Against the backdrop of the national emergency, the characters often seem small-minded and self-absorbed, pathetically unable to direct their energies against their true enemies. The people-who, as one character muses, are not "molecules"-seem constitutionally incapable of uniting against their common foes. Each seems locked into his or her humdrum daily concerns and private world, striving after consumer goods, looking after their own, and blissfully forgetful of the lurking danger that could transform them in a moment into a splattered mess of human parts all over the pavement.
After an introductory chapter, Castel-Bloom's narrative eye focuses on Kati Beit-Halahmi and her family, who live in the run-down Ganei Aviv neighbourhood of Lod. Because her husband Boaz cannot work after a taxi accident, and because his parents have disinherited him, Kati's family have descended to one of society's lowest rungs; she works as a scrublady. The Beit-Halahmis are so poor they can't afford to replace burned-out light-bulbs and their twins must share a single pair of gloves between them throughout the freak winter. When a local news station invites her to discuss her plight on television, Kati uses the occasion to shame her husband's family in public; in a society that reveres dissonance and victimization, she becomes an instant sensation and a darling of the talk-show circuit. Her new career as media celebrity gives her new hope and promises to propel her into society's most stellar reaches.
Now the storyteller's roving spotlight finds Liat Dubnov and her half-brother, Adir Bergson, who run Clean World, a Tel Aviv laundromat and jointly administer their late mother's real estate holdings. (Their mother's death in America is recounted with a level of specificity that makes it seem both comic and grotesque: "She had slipped on seaweed in one of the canyons there and fallen into the abyss.") When Liat herself dies of Saudi flu, Adir is so overwhelmed with arrangements regarding the death notice, funeral, eulogy and shiva (mourning ritual) that, for a moment, he wishes she had been killed by terrorists so he'd have a better idea of what to say.
Thinking about these many preparations as he drives from one errand to the next, he "switched on the radio and heard a helicopter report on the morning's traffic jams and a news flash about two people who had died of their wounds from yesterday's terrorist attack. He let out a bitter sigh: his Liat was gone and the world hadn't stopped. People died and were born, understood something and grew confused again, and then-clarity once more . . . ." Like numerous passages, this piece of philosophical musing reflects Castel-Bloom's bitingly satiric-ironic perception that Israelis have been so worn down by acts of terror that they have begun to accept death by terrorism as just a part of the natural cycle of life.
The affairs of the main characters in Human Parts sometimes seem to descend into low farce or cruel pathos, as when a cloudburst drenches the mourners and fills the newly-dug grave at Liat's funeral. Attendees include Adir's girlfriend, Tasaro, a dark-skinned Ethiopian-Jewish model, and his former girlfriend, Iris Ventura, a divorced mother of two who is obsessed with winning him back. Iris lives on Jeremiah Street in "the area of the ancient prophets" in Tel Aviv, but despite this nominal connection to the glory of ancient prophets, her head is filled with the lowly stuff of everyday life. Like many Israelis, she struggles with poverty owing to the economic hardships imposed by "the situation." Possessing a car but no money for gas, she cadges a ride to the funeral with a dentist to whom she is especially nice because she is desperate to attain some free dental work. When her portable phone starts ringing at the funeral, she scoots to a corner of the cemetery, only to be mistaken by a security guard for a terrorist.
The paths of this colourful troupe comically intersect at times, as when Liat's funeral motorcade passes another convoy in which Reuven Tekoa, the fictitious president of the state of Israel, is riding. Tekoa, who is just leaving the funeral of a terror victim, is on his way to visit Kati Beit-Halahmi, the poverty-stricken mother in Lod who has become a national cause clbre. At the Beit-Halahi household, meanwhile, Kati is in a quandary because she can't decide whether to lavish the expected president with refreshments or show him a more austere form of hospitality in order to emphasize the extent of her poverty. Alas, he's forced to postpone the visit at the last moment in order to attend another funeral and make more condolence calls. The president's secretary assures Kati that he will reschedule a visit as soon as a ceasefire is declared, but that doesn't lessen her deep and bitter disappointment. "She was almost crying, and for a few seconds she went on automatically dusting the television, until she stopped and asked herself why she was bothering."
Such is the fabric of life in a country in which public attention is continuously diverted from poverty to terror attacks to the weather to the latest flu statistics. President Tekoa collapses and is ordered to cut back his rigorous regimen of appointments and appearances. Despondent because her aura of stardom and glamour is wearing off, Kati goes back to scrubbing stairwells but decides to become a make-up artist. Needing money for a make-up course, she defrauds a bank clerk using a hilarious gambit she had seen on television. Meanwhile, the country is transfixed by an unprecedented terrorist attack involving a large pipe bomb hidden under a snowdrift outside a Golan Heights shopping mall. The government "has decided to continue its policy of restraint, to exhaust its political options, and on no account to be dragged into a total war," a spokesperson announces.
Kati's unlucky husband, Boaz, who has been inexplicably thinking about God, seeks to improve his lot with a visit to a Jerusalem mystic in the Street of the Prophets: the guru is named Dr. Amihud Shilo and his shady establishment is called the Pure Light Institute. (Reading Dalya Bilu's wonderful fluid translation, English-speaking readers may not be aware that many of the proper names used in the novel-Tekoa, Shilo, Boaz, Amihud-have varied associations for Hebrew speakers, sometimes arising from the Bible or as borrowed details from actual terrorist attacks.)
Buoyed by Dr. Shilo's impressive reading, Boaz starts for home but gets impossibly lost in the maze of streets named after prophets; he switches on the radio and hears of another bombing, this time in Hadera. "From now on, nothing will be as it was," a government spokesperson says. "There's before and there's after." Although he is driving in frustrating circles, Boaz soon reaches an unexpected destination, though not one he could have ever sought. While it would be a violation of book-reviewing etiquette to reveal his ultimate fate, it is permissible to note that he does attain a sort of transcendence, but nothing like the spiritual variety he had been seeking.

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