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Zeruya Shalev wrote a beautiful novel about mourning: 'I felt the pain as if it happened to me'

With a fine, precise pen, Israeli Zeruya Shalev (63) writes about human relationships. Her new novel Lot is about what binds and drives loved ones apart, and the different faces of grief.

Sentences that want to be written

For some writers, a book begins with an image, a pressing question or a character that presents itself. For Zeruya Shalev, a leading author in Israel, it starts with sentences that want to be written. 'Only after a long time do I begin to understand what kind of story I am actually writing, what it is about. That's why it takes me so long to write a book, as long as five or six years. And this was the hard one so far.'

The beginning of Lot presented itself years ago when Shalev had to submit an article for the German magazine Der Spiegel. 'As usual, I just postponed and postponed, until the very last moment. When I finally managed to sit down and make a start, the sentences flowed onto paper that turned out to be the beginning of this novel.'

Listening and waiting

Lot is about the very elderly woman Rachel, whose life is turned upside down by meeting Atara, a woman in her fifties with a complex marriage. Atara is the daughter of Mano, Rachel's first husband. At one time, both Rachel and Mano were members of Zionist group Lechi. But after a fateful event, Mano left her overnight, without further explanation. Both remarried and had a family. But when Mano dies, his daughter Atara contacts Rachel because she wants to know who Rachel is and what she has meant to her father. Meanwhile, Atara's existence becomes shaky as her son has returned from the army depressed and her husband Alex dies unexpectedly.

Were those first sentences the same ones the novel actually begins with?

'Yes. It's actually always like that, the sentences present themselves spontaneously, as if in a flow. Even after all these years, that process is still a mystery to me. After a while, I then read back what I have written down and take a little more distance to understand the characters and to be able to see what the story is actually about. Then it moves into a more conscious phase, where I think more and, above all, listen a lot. Because writing is above all listening and waiting. For one particular scene involving my protagonist Rachel, I waited two weeks before it became clear how the story would go on.'

You do not invent what needs to be done, but wait to see what presents itself?

'Exactly, I have great faith in the inspiration and unconscious processes that take place behind my back, so to speak. I try not to impose myself on my characters and the book, but give them space to develop. Questions like "Is what I write good?" or "Do I actually have anything to say?" are strictly forbidden. This makes not only me, but also the novel insecure. Because in the early stages, the book is like a baby, which should not be tormented with such questions. But what I do wonder is: who is Rachel, what does she want and what can I do to help her do that? Soon I understood that she must have been a member of the underground movement Lechi, just as my father had been.'

What were the Lechi for a grouping?

'The Lechi were an extremist movement between 1940 and 1948, whose aim was to drive out the British. At that time, the Palestinian territories and Israel were still one territory, under British rule. The Lechi held them responsible for the huge tensions in the region, and believed that Arabs and Israelis could live together peacefully if the British left. But most Israelis hated the Lechi; even though they did not attack innocent civilians but British military targets, they were considered terrorists.'

Articles and propaganda

'Although the British acted quite brutally and sent ships full of Jewish refugees back out to sea, many people did not approve of the British being attacked, while at the same time England was at war with the Nazis.'

So your father was a member of this organisation?

'He was indeed with the Lechi for a year or two. Not as a fighter, by the way; he wrote articles and propaganda. That time had been, I think, the most meaningful period in his life. He always wanted to talk about it, much to the annoyance of my brother, mother and me. If he started again, we would roll our eyes and hope he would stop talking about it as soon as possible. I started working on this book two years after his death, and only when I really tried to get to the bottom of Rachel's personality did I realise that part of his spirit had entered her. Nothing on earth I could use better than his stories! He had about seven of them that he told over and over again - and I remembered none of them. None! Even though I was not a teenager when he died, but already in my mid-50s. SO stupid. So I watched a lot of interviews and had to read books.'

In the shoes of a perpetrator

Unlike your father, your character Rachel has been involved in attacks. You yourself were seriously injured in an attack in 2004 when a Palestinian blew himself up in a bus. What was it like putting yourself in the shoes of a perpetrator?

'I found it very difficult to put myself in Rachel's shoes; it took me a long time to get close enough to her as needed to describe her from the inside. She is so far removed from myself and the people I want to be close to in my life. She is a strongly ideological person, fanatical and extreme. Ideas are closer to her than the people around her, which is completely opposite to how I myself am in life. I am much more liberal and open to different views and lifestyles. That made it difficult, but interesting at the same time. There is an important difference with Rachel and the perpetrator of the attack I myself survived, though. The Lechi accidentally killed civilians when attacking military targets. But the attack I was injured in was aimed at killing as many civilians as possible, indiscriminately - there were also Arabs on that bus. I think that is something different.

I strongly believe in making choices and taking responsibility. But chance is also a determining factor in existence. Take the attack I witnessed. Had I walked past that bus half a minute earlier, I would have been dead. Whereas five minutes later, I would have been unharmed. Such thoughts are maddening. In fact, so little is in our own hands.'

Atara also loses herself in 'what if' thoughts after the death of her husband Alex. The way you describe the different layers of grief is very precise and sophisticated.

'A German journalist I know well told me she immediately googled whether my husband was still alive, that's how convincingly she found the writing. A wonderful compliment. While writing these scenes, I cried for weeks. I felt the pain as if it happened to me. My husband, fortunately, is still alive. But he had to model and lie for dead on the sofa. This allowed me to describe very precisely how the light fell on his face.'

Desperate characters

The complexity of relationships and family ties is a common thread in your work. What else was there to explore about that?

"As Tolstoy said, "Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This is a subject that has so many faces that it continues to fascinate me. But this book is not only about the relationships between parents and their children or spouses among themselves, but also about the relationship between us and our destiny. How do we interpret it, where does our own responsibility begin and end? Rachel more or less lives in the past because she feels she owes it to her fallen fellow soldiers. It can take a lifetime for someone to free themselves from their past. It is tempting to stay as we are because that feels familiar and safe. Change we usually only do when the need is great enough. That's why I make my characters desperate. So that they are willing to change.'

Good to know Good to know

Zeruya Shalev, Lot. Translated by Ruben Verhasselt. Meulenhoff, 367 p., €24.99

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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