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The House of Rajani
By Alon Hilu | Translated by Evan Fallenberg | Harvill Secker | 288 pages | £12.99
It is probably unprecedented for a book praised as “outstanding” by the president of Israel to be labeled, along with its author, as “anti-Zionist” and the work of a traitor. Not surprisingly, Alon Hilu is rather circumspect when talking about the controversy that has dogged his second novel, the recently translated The House of Rajani, since its publication in Hebrew two years ago.
“One tends to define concepts like these – like Judaism, like Zionism – according to the mainstream thinking of the day,” Hilu says. He picks his words carefully, as one might expect from a writer who also works – “the day job,” as he describes it disarmingly – as legal counsel for a leading hi-tech company.
“For example, there is a spiritual aspect to Zionism, the Zionism of Ahad Ha’am, which proposed that Israel should be only a spiritual center for the Jewish people.” Hilu pauses. “But [Theodor] Herzl’s ideology, that all Jews must live here and that there must be a majority of Jewish citizens, is now mainstream Zionist thinking.”
But how does this distinction insulate him from criticisms that his book is anti-Zionist? “I don’t think that if one says that Zionism does not necessarily equate to a Jewish state, then one is automatically a traitor,” Hilu replies. “I think that Zionism is that... one recognizes the link between the Jewish people and the territory. But when it comes to a state, it does not necessarily have to be a Jewish state. In fact, it can be a binational state, and I think that in the future it might actually become one.”
These gradations of distinction are important to Hilu, and understandably so. The House of Rajani was warmly received following its Hebrew publication in 2008, and it won the Sapir Prize, the country’s most prestigious fiction prize, last year. But the award was subsequently revoked in an ugly public row about an alleged conflict of interest on the part of the judging panel, a row with – as Hilu suggests – significant political undertones. More recently, the English-language publication was almost derailed following the threat of a lawsuit from the descendants of one of the fictional, in a sense, protagonists of the novel, warranting a last-minute change of name from the original Hebrew title, Ahuzat Dajani, and of the primary protagonists.
Considering the past year in retrospect, Hilu is remarkably composed. But then, he has been forced to become adept at the task of defending his fiction, not on its literary merits as a writer might usually expect but instead on its alleged political message. “I’m not a politician, I’m a writer. And as a writer, I don’t think that my job is to provide solutions, but rather to raise questions.”
THE QUESTIONS raised in The House of Rajani go to the roots of the narrative of the birth of the modern state of Israel. The story, set in the late 1890s and around the era of the first wave of aliya to Ottoman-era Palestine, revolves around two protagonists, Jewish pioneer and agronomist Luminsky and the native-born Arab youth Rajani. Troubled by disturbing visions of the future, Rajani is the heir to a substantial estate, neglected but with vast arable potential; Luminsky is determined to put the land to good use, using all means at his disposal. What ensues is a painful human tragedy born out of mutual miscomprehension, but at the same time a pointed commentary on the actions of the early pioneers, one that nudges at accepted fact and encourages a fresh contemplation of the early days of Jewish settlement in Palestine.
One distinct characteristic of The House of Rajani is the fact that the protagonists are – or at least were, in the original Hebrew – named after real, albeit deceased, individuals. Combined with the historical overview – underpinned by extensive research, and written with a lush archaic style that precisely evokes the period – it gives the work a remarkable verisimilitude.
Hilu explains that that this is integral to his approach to writing. “What I like to do with my fiction is to take history, books written by historians, and then to explore the footnotes.”
Why so? “Because I think that there is often a second story, a counter-history if you like, implied within the main text. From the footnotes, one can discover this hidden counter-narrative.”
Hilu’s Luminsky – Kalvarisky in the Hebrew original – emerged from an aside in Tom Segev’s magisterial history One Palestine Complete. The real Kalvarisky was a complicated man, one who “dispossessed Arabs of their lands for 25 years,” but also advocated compromise, proposing some form of Jewish autonomy under Arab government, a binational state in fact. Kalvarisky has since vanished from contemporary histories despite his achievements on behalf of the Zionist pioneers; his imagined story, one appreciates, is a seductive starting point for an alternative history.
But constructing counter-narratives is fraught with difficulties, not least when they challenge accepted political wisdom: Hilu’s confident and accomplished storytelling was, for a time, almost subsumed by the virulence of the attacks that the book received.
Hilu admits to being shaken by the experience. “If you had spoken to me about it six months ago... I was completely freaked out. All of a sudden, I had all this media attention, I was publicly humiliated. It did end well ultimately, because many more people got to hear about the book and to read the book because of the controversy. But it wasn’t an easy time.”
Hilu insists that he did not set out to create a didactic political script. However, he does not shy away from the potent commentary that can be distilled from the book. “When I started writing, I had characters in my head, not a political agenda. But I did want to to try to correct what I see as a wrong narrative, the mistold story of our Zionist history.”
By way of illustration, he mentions a book he reread while researching his own, S.Y. Agnon’s classic Tmol Shilshom. “Agnon is one of our genius writers; it is a book that I appreciate very much. But it struck me that his book, essentially a historical novel based on his own experiences of coming to Palestine in his 20s, didn’t have even one Palestinian character with a full name, a family name, nothing. I felt rather disturbed about this: I know that the Jaffa of the time was 80 percent Palestinian, but when he describes Jaffa he describes just the Jewish Jaffa. And rereading it made me more convinced that what I had to try to do in my book was to try to correct the mistold story of that age.”
HILU ACKNOWLEDGES that writing against the grain, as it were, is not easy. “Israel remains one of the very few countries whose very existence is constantly questioned.” But this ought not circumscribe internal argument and debate. “As a person who grew up here and who lives here, I feel very confident about the existence of Israel. Criticizing Israel will not endanger its existence; on the contrary, it will make it stronger.”
The past must be reexamined, Hilu argues, to have control over the
future. “Sometimes, I think the people try to hide away from these
challenges; 100 years ago, we denied the Palestinian existence; we said
there is no such thing as a Palestinian nationality, and this led to
the dead end that we face today. If we were wiser a hundred years ago,
the situation today would have been better. This is the lesson, to
prepare for the future.”
What will this future be? “We have to
get used to living side by side with the Arab population because there
is no choice. I think that Israel will become a binational state
because of demographic issues... We are going there, and if one
understands it today, then we can begin to prepare for the far future.
For me, it is scary, because I grew up in a Jewish demographic Israel.
This is the way I would want it to be forever, but we have many issues
out there. We can’t run away from them.”