'Differently': Israeli short stories that take a different perspective - review

Avner Lahav: “My short stories are experiments in addressing reality; therefore, each story is in a different style, a parable. I don’t approach reality head-on but go around it.”

 Avner Lahav and his new book. (photo credit: COURTESY AVNER LAHAV)
Avner Lahav and his new book.
(photo credit: COURTESY AVNER LAHAV)

The reward in French Algiers in the 1950s for students’ excellence in French literature was a handful of hardcover books for them to take home. They were books to linger over and savor. Those, and an outstanding teacher in the ninth grade, ignited the passion for language and literature in Avner Lahav, the Algerian-born Israeli writer who recently published his third book, titled Differently

Published by Steimatzky, it is a collection of short stories. Some he originally wrote in French and translated himself into Hebrew. Poetically rendered, the collection is a multifaceted, intellectual parable about the human condition, experimenting with different styles and approaches to reality. He observes the human soul and reflects on it. Lahav says that he is not a realistic writer like Amos Oz or Meir Shalev.

“My short stories are experiments in addressing reality; therefore, each story is in a different style, a parable. I don’t approach reality head-on but go around it,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.

In hindsight, it was lucky that Lahav (whose original name was Lucien Lalouch) was born in Algiers after the antisemitic Vichy rule during World War II. Another Algerian writer, and founder of the Deconstruction school of philosophy, Jacque Derrida, seventeen years his senior, was thrown out of the French lycée. Two of Derrida’s books are among the 35 books Lahav has translated from French to Hebrew.

“He is a Jewish Algerian. I feel him,” he says about translating Derrida. 

 Avner Lahav (credit: COURTESY AVNER LAHAV)
Avner Lahav (credit: COURTESY AVNER LAHAV)

Lahav’s translation work includes the books of some of the best French thinkers in the humanities and social sciences. The French Embassy in Israel awarded him for his contribution to spreading French culture.

Lahav has published three books: Between Pleasure and Death – a psychoanalytic reading of Kafka’s stories; Parhi Chulin; and The Way Not to Forget.

“When I started working as a professional translator, I said, ‘Why not translate my own stories that were originally written in French?’ and I decided they should be a part of this book,” he says. He wrote some of the texts in his adolescence, and quite a few were published in literary magazines.

“I like to be present, to observe until things make their mark on me,” he writes in the first short story, “Sky and Earth,” written in French in 1967 after he had made aliyah.

But that’s jumping ahead. 

The history of Algeria's Jewish community

First, one must understand the unique situation of the Algerian Jewish community, which is different from the others in North Africa.

In 1870, Algerian Jews were granted full French citizenship under what was known as the Cremieux Decree, with all the privileges that entailed. Within a generation, Algerian Jews embraced French culture with a passion. Their Muslim Arab neighbors were excluded.

“It was great luck that I was born after the Vichy rule,” says Lahav in a telephone interview from his home in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, the destination of choice for many immigrants from France. Entire neighborhoods in Netanya are French-speaking. Along the bustling seaside promenade, one can hear conversations in French and enjoy authentic baguettes and croissants in the bakeries and cafés. 

“I grew up in Algeria with French education until age seven or eight, like any other Algerian Jewish child. I had a few Muslim friends. We studied French literature, French history and geography, and so on. And almost nothing about the country where we were born and lived – Algeria. Such was the colonial rule and the spirit of the French Republic. It also had a huge advantage because that is how I got to know the best writers in France, the mechanics of the language, and many other fields of knowledge. 

“In those years, we didn’t feel any difference. Things began to change in 1954 when the war for Algerian independence began. It was apparent that our world in Algeria was falling apart. I didn’t feel it except when another student insulted me in ninth grade, but the teacher interfered and threw him out of the class,” he recounts.

Lahav refers to the seven-year violent Algerian war for independence from French colonial rule that yielded many atrocities and war crimes. After attaining independence in 1962, the Algerian government harassed the Jewish community and deprived Jews of economic rights. Almost the entire Jewish community left, with the vast majority choosing to repatriate to France, their homeland, rather than make aliyah. Only 11% of the 140,000-strong community decided to move to Israel. 

A mock “trial” against the Algerian community was held in Jerusalem in 1963, accusing them of betraying their Jewish homeland.

Lahav’s family moved to France, to Marseille. At age 15, Lahav joined the Zionist youth organization Hashomer Hatzair, where he learned to sing Hebrew songs without knowing their meaning, dance the hora, and be inspired to make aliyah.

He eventually joined Kibbutz Yehiam in Upper Galilee, where he married his sweetheart, Daniela.

There, they decided to change their Algerian name to a Hebrew one. 

“I thought that if I became an author one day, I want a Hebrew name. The name ‘Lahav’ symbolizes my significant identification with Hebrew culture,” he explains.

Franz Kafka, an author with whom he feels he is on first-name terms, is a significant influence on Lahav.

“I began reading Kafka in French translation in my adolescence. He aroused my curiosity from the first metamorphoses. I knew that we had a common language. I was captured. His strange world was not strange. It spoke to me, and I read everything I could. The doubts that Kafka had about institutions, humanity, and literature, I feel it when I write my prose. Undoubtedly, he occupies a central place in my literary perception, and it is not for nothing that I dedicated my first book to him, which tries to get down to the roots of his writing and his world. But Kafka is not a writer that can be imitated or even resembled. That’s why I draw inspiration from prominent elements in his literary work, particularly the casting of doubt in everything.”

Avner Lahav’s literary journey is a testament to the power of self-awareness and the awareness of both the power and limitations of literature.

Lahav believes that his timing at age 77 is just right to publish his collection of short stories, written over a lifetime, as he does not want to wait for an institution or some editor to decide to print “all of Avner Lahav’s writing.” 

“I tire. This is a war of attrition against time, and time is tough; it doesn’t relent,” he writes in his last text, “As Long As,” written in 2022. “The end is clear, but the eyes are wide open, that is, the internal eyes; my vision itself is not what it used to be. I hold on to what isn’t already gone, and it’s a desperate attempt; everything can turn instantly.”  ■