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The Sea Above Us
By Amnon Rubinstein
259 pages; NIS 79
I haven't asked him, but I'm reasonably sure that Prof. Amnon Rubinstein hasn't undergone a green conversion at 75. Unlike former US vice president Al Gore, if he wanted to stage a comeback to politics, he wouldn't need to ride the fashionable hobby horse of global warming, he simply could have accepted Ehud Olmert's offer to run as Kadima's candidate for the presidency eight months ago.
Instead he preferred to stick with his new literary career and has now come out with his third novel in less than three years, this time an apocalyptical tale of a Tel Aviv suddenly plunged under the sea along with the rest of the world's coastal cities after the North Pole ice suddenly evaporates in a flash meltdown.
As in his previous two novels, The Blanket and Road Number Five, The Sea Above Us includes a bizarre cast of minor characters, misfits and bit players in the grand scene of the Zionist venture.
The main character, Yitzhak Halamish, is a pensioner living in a small apartment overlooking Tel Aviv beach. We don't know what Halamish did for a living and what position he held over the last six decades, but the fact that the only information we have is the bare details of his family life emphasizes the one main event of his personal history, his service as a radioman in the leaky ships of the clandestine effort to bring as many Jews as possible from war-torn Europe in defiance of the British imposed restrictions on immigration.
That episode has marked his life from then on, a life that has revolved around the Tel Aviv seafront as do the lives of the other figures in the book, all outsiders living frustrated marginal lives. A lonely woman who was brought in her infancy on one of the boats that Halamish served on, a naval candidate who loses his only friend to the waves, an ultralight pilot who escapes the hell that is his parent's home to fly advertising slogans over the heads of bathers, a young Arab man trapped in an arranged marriage looking for real love and, above all, Jumbo, the Rwandan refugee living with Halamish, nursing him after his stroke.
Rubinstein in his journalism over the past couple of decades has been one of the strongest voices attacking the post-Zionist "new historians" who are busy dismantling the myths that are the bedrock of Israel's heritage. He has remained a resolute Zionist, but he also realizes the inadequacy of the old-style history based on the actions of great men. As a central figure in politics for 30 years and as a commentator for even longer, he is only too aware of their shortcomings. What he has tried to do in these three books is to combine his storytelling with the creation of an alternative Zionist history, the story of the little people. All of them lead imperfect, unfulfilled lives, but they were an inexorable part of the building of a state.
The Sea Above Us takes place in three periods: today's Israel where the normal course of events is suddenly interrupted by a bizarre natural disaster; in the past, the heroic days of the illegal immigration; and in the future, Israel 2107, a nation that has rebuilt itself after the loss of its major financial and cultural center, with Halamish's great-grandson who is trying to understand his ancestor's decision to stay and die alone in the sinking Tel Aviv.
Rubinstein was born in Tel Aviv and has lived there all his life; his family made its fortune out of building the city from its early days. Whether or not he actually believes in the scenario he sets out, one gets the feeling that he derived a vicarious pleasure from imagining it sinking beneath the waves. The result is a short, intense and thought-provoking novel.
Despite a few shortcomings, chief among them the stilted dialogue that fails to recreate the way contemporary young Israelis communicate among themselves, it makes for a compelling read, but there is an underlying message that is just as significant as the book's literary merits.
By placing the narrative in those three time periods, when the enterprise was starting out at one of the Jewish people's lowest points, in today's world of frustrated unfulfilled aspirations and ideals and in a brave new future, Rubinstein is saying to us all that there's still hope for the Zionist dream, it can be rejuvenated and motivated to meet new challenges. Let's just hope it won't need an apocalypse to be realized.
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