For an Israeli, Flights of Fancy Are Grounded
Wide Praise for a Novelist Stirred to Social Realism by Bombings
The New York Times, June 17, 2002
by Samuel G. Freedman

TEL AVIV - Not long ago, the novelist Orly Castel-Bloom taught her 9-year-old son a few lessons about childhood in Israel. First she showed him how to drop to the floor when a terrorist begins shooting. Then she explained that if he noticed a suicide bomber nearby, he should recite the Shema, the prayer that Jews uttered as they went to their deaths in the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition and other tragedies.

Ms. Castel-Bloom's tutorial offered a case of life imitating art imitating life, for she is not only a mother made fearful by the ceaseless Palestinian terrorism but also an author who has just produced the first Israeli novel to chronicle life amid the 20-month-old Palestinian uprising, the Al Aksa intifada. She entitled the book "Halakim Enoshiyim," or "Human Parts," a punning reference to the myriad characters she follows and to the grisly aftereffects of a suicide bombing.

Unpublished as yet in the United States but renowned in Israel and Europe, Ms. Castel-Bloom built her reputation with portraits of failing relationships and flights of dystopian fantasy. These set her apart from the social engagement and naturalism of such predecessors as Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua. Her shift to social realism, then, struck here with the impact Americans might feel if, say, Ann Beattie or T.C. Boyle were to have written a novel about Sept. 11.

"My writing is more calm, and the situation is more vicious," Ms. Castel-Bloom, who is 41, put it during a conversation in early June in a Tel Aviv cafe. "When I was writing, there was an attack every day or two, and, God forbid, it gave one a kind of inspiration. To contribute my point of view, to use my capacity as a writer to describe this epoch. History became so invasive that I had to stick with reality."

To that end, Ms. Castel-Bloom populated "Human Parts" with a cast meant to convey the spectrum of Israeli Jewry, from a real estate heir of the Ashkenazi elite to a housing-project janitor from Kurdish background to an Ethiopian immigrant working as a model. The lives of these characters and others coincidentally graze against one another and are unified in a larger way by the overarching violence. "Not only was the sky falling," Ms. Castel-Bloom writes in the opening paragraphs, "the ground was trembling, too."

So ubiquitous are terrorist attacks, and the dreadful anticipation of them, in "Human Parts" that when the real estate heir can't reach his girlfriend on her cell phone at a cafe, he wonders if she's been blown up. The man's sister reassures him: had a bomb gone off, they would have heard the ambulance sirens.

Since its publication in mid-March, "Human Parts" has earned accolades from Israeli critics. The newspaper Ha'aretz profiled Ms. Castel-Bloom on the cover of its magazine section beneath the headline, "My Private Intifada." The nation 's largest daily, Yediot Ahronot, praised the book as "a credible, troubling, linguistically accurate representation of the maelstrom."

Plaudits, in and of themselves, are hardly new to Ms. Castel-Bloom. She won several major awards and fellowships for her earlier books, and her best-known, "Dolly City," has been published in eight foreign editions, from England to Greece to China. The French newspaper Le Monde has likened her to Kafka.

In all her prior books, however, Ms. Castel-Bloom formed part of a generation of Israeli writers who rejected the ethos of their literary forebears—that writers should serve as "hatzofe lebeit Yisroel," "scouts for the House of Israel." "They saw themselves as the conscience of the nation," the prominent Israeli author and critic Gadi Taub said of writers like Mr. Oz.

Ms. Castel-Bloom and contemporaries like Etgar Keret, Uzi Weil and Gafi Amir, coming of age in the 1980's, cut a decided contrast. "Their generation had a sense that the subordination of the private individual to the public cause was suffocating one's ability to live, to love," Mr. Taub said. "And they felt that the writer knew no more than the rest of us. The writer could say, 'I don't know.' " Their spare, discontinuous style led older critics to dismiss their "thin language," a term many of the young writers in turn adopted as a badge of honor.

Raised in Tel Aviv by Egyptian-born parents who spoke French—her father was an accountant for the airline El Al, her mother worked in a bank—Ms. Castel-Bloom found literary models including the Americans Raymond Carver and Grace Paley, with their finely etched short stories, and the Argentine Julio Cortazar, master of fragmenting narrative. No sooner had she published an initial realistic story in 1987 than she adopted a bleakly humorous kind of surrealism.

In her novels and short stories, fighter jets drop rabid dogs and a hapless soldier accidentally fires a Patriot missile into a country club. The obsessive mother who is the protagonist in "Dolly City" swallows antidepressants 20 at a time, administers herself electroshock treatments and carves the map of Israel into her infant son's back.

From the outset of "Human Parts" in early 2000, though, Ms. Castel-Bloom knew it would be different. With Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat seemingly about to conclude a peace settlement, Ms. Castel-Bloom had resolved to write about social inequality in Israel, an issue long obscured by security concerns. Instead of depending solely on her imagination, she conducted informal research, chatting with Ethiopian Jews working as cashiers, poking around a housing project for Russian immigrants.

With Ms. Castel-Bloom six months into the book, the Al Aksa intifada broke out. She tried at first to ignore it. Then, in mid-October of 2000, two Israeli soldiers were lynched in a Palestinian Authority police station in Ramallah and their remains paraded through the streets. "After that," Ms. Castel-Bloom said, "I thought it was immoral to ignore the intifada."

While retaining passages about the social and ethnic fissures in Israel, Ms. Castel-Bloom now surrounded her characters with unpredictable violence. To avoid being merely reportorial, she did set the events in an unidentified year, date them by the Hebrew calendar and paint an Israel afflicted by an epidemic of "Saudi flu" and a winter so frigid that the ocean freezes at the beach resort of Eilat. Still, the treacherous world that Ms. Castel-Bloom conjured from her imagination met its match in the daily headlines.

"The real world is becoming my own," she said during the recent interview. "I know this atmosphere. An article about 'Dolly City' said it shows the right way to raise a child in this cruel world. Well, today, every mother is crazy. To put your daughter on a bus is to play Russian roulette."

That is the voice of experience. Ms. Castel-Bloom's 16-year-old daughter went to a cafe in Tel Aviv's trendy Shenkin neighborhood the day before a suicide bomber attacked it. The family's apartment sits within several miles of the giant gas-transfer plant that terrorists tried to ignite in May; published estimates of the prospective impact of a blast placed the Castel-Blooms in a zone expected to have a 50 percent death toll.

And on June 5, as Ms. Castel-Bloom was applying makeup for an appearance in Tel Aviv as part of Hebrew Book Week, she heard on the radio that a car bomb had exploded next to a commuter bus in northern Israel, killing 17 Israelis. Throughout the day, journalists called her for comment, a grim testament to the relevance of "Human Parts."

"I want my book to be history already," she said as the search for actual body parts proceeded on the road outside Megiddo. "I want it to be buried in the past. What kind of life is this?"

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