Writing from experience

Is repression a normal response to reality?

World Cup Wishes
By Eshkol Nevo
Translated by Sondra Silverston
 Chatto and Windus | 352 pages | £12.99
Eshkol Nevo is lamenting Israel’s failure – once more – to make it through the qualification stage to the forthcoming World Cup in South Africa. “Perhaps it is symbolic of everything that happens here.” He grins. “With soccer, we’re considered a part of Europe but in fact we are not; we’re a bit in the Middle East, but we can’t play against our neighbors because we have too many enemies here.”
These contradictions, he suggests, hint at a deeper ambiguity about Israel’s place in the wider world. “Take Judaism: There is an inclination within Judaism that wants us to remain isolated, that wants us to remain the only chosen people. But at the same time we want to be universal, a part of the world.”
The contradictions extend beyond the narrow question of Jewish identity. “These tensions are everywhere: in our relationship with the Diaspora, in soccer, in the approach of our foreign minister. There are always these two streams; we want to be with ourselves, but we also want to be like everyone else, part of the greater whole.”
Soccer – with the deepest respect to fans of the game – is not the most obvious instrument with which to parse the contradictions inherent in Israel’s relationship with the wider world. But there is something fitting about using the sport in this way, taking the otherwise quotidian as a starting point for a considered meditation on the world we live in.
One might even go further, and propose that this same approach influences Nevo’s fiction strongly; by placing his narratives firmly in the world of everyday people, he allows himself the possibility of writing relevant fiction without slipping into didacticism or overtly political screed. The end product is no less relevant for this; rather, this conceit lends the work authenticity, a meaningful social realism.
World Cup Wishes – the second of Nevo’s books to be translated into English, following the success of 2008’s Homesick – is an intimate exploration of masculinity and male friendship. Set in the late ’90s and the first years of the new millennium, the book follows four men in their late 20s, friends from the North who move together to Tel Aviv after university to establish themselves, in the manner of many of their generation.
Watching the 1998 World Cup soccer finals, they form a pact among themselves: Each makes three wishes, of things that they hope to achieve in the coming years. They share one wish with each other, but keep the others to themselves. They set a firm date to meet again, during the next World Cup Final match four years hence, to share the remaining wishes and to take stock of where life has taken them in the intervening period.
It is an exercise in youthful optimism, but optimism can often mutate, unbidden, into wishful thinking. World Cup Wishes charts the trials and tribulations of the following years, a period during which they learn as much about themselves as they do about each other, their optimism – and their friendship – tested by a gradual, perhaps even inevitable, ambivalence about the milieu that they inhabit.
It is important to point out that World Cup Wishes is most emphatically not a book about soccer; in fact, Nevo works very hard to avoid the tropes within which narratives about male friendship are often enclosed. “There is the old cliche that men do not have an emotional world. It’s not true, of course,” Nevo says. He refers to a couple of popular television programs by way of argument. “What one gets are groups of guys who are, basically, inarticulate, dumb. I knew that I wanted to write about intelligent men.”
Does he feel that he succeeded? “It wasn’t that I was stating an agenda [with World Cup Wishes), but I was satisfied by the time I had finished that I had created characters who can speak with each other, share their inner worlds, their emotions.”
The four protagonists are Churchill, an ambitious attorney and intellectually superior; Ofir, who works in advertising and is on the verge of burnout; Amichai, in a steady unadventurous job, married young to the charmingly nicknamed Ilana the Weeper and with small children; and Yuval, the narrator, an introvert who ekes out a living as a translator while working intermittently on his doctoral thesis, on the subject of “great thinkers who changed their minds.”
It is interesting to note that their enduring friendship does not stem from the army – as is often the case – but goes much further back, to their Haifa childhood. “There is a myth about male friendship in Israel, of men who become close to one another because they have to rely upon one another,” Nevo suggests. He consciously avoided these quasi-heroic underpinnings. “I didn’t want to write about men who had to survive together; I wanted to write about men who are able to find an interest in one another.”
A CONSTANT, albeit understated aspect to World Cup Wishes is a consideration of the consequences of emotional repression. Even though the kinship among the four survives significant stresses – bereavement, betrayal – they remain friends regardless. More pointedly, the troubled political landscape of the period is rarely referred to explicitly. Taken at face value, this seems at times like a statement, an argument for the notion of business as usual, that life continues regardless. But what emerges from a closer reading is a rather more complicated proposition.
Nevo argues that this approach to life is in its own way as deleterious as it is to air these tensions unmediated, to hang out one’s dirty laundry as it were. Nevo, who lives in relatively affluent Ra’anana, accepts that this instinct is natural. “You could say that living here is a form of repression. I’m enclosing myself and my family in a kind of bubble. Here, the economic situation is good, there are green spaces, even the relationship between the secular and observant is good. In a sense, I am saying to my children, ‘You don’t have to be exposed to the full Israeli picture.’”
But it is impossible to play Pollyanna indefinitely. “It is a question at the heart of World Cup Wishes: For how long can one deny what is happening around one, for how long can one repress? Is repression normal or abnormal, a healthy or unhealthy reaction to reality in Israel?”
One can guess at Nevo’s answer to this from within the pages of World Cup Wishes. The narrative avoids, with one notable exception, direct commentary on the reality of the security situation and the interminably aggressive relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. But the book is punctuated by acts of random violence, inexplicable and at times verging on the absurd.
Is this undercurrent of rage the price for maintaining the illusion that everything is normal, everything is in order? Nevo approaches this question by talking about the effect writing the book had upon him, as an individual. World Cup Wishes is not explicitly autobiographical; but not surprisingly, it draws from life experience.
“When I write, I learn things about myself. You pay a price when you write: It becomes much harder to repress, whether it is personal matters or looking around oneself from society. You pay a certain price, the price of awareness,” he says.
He explains further. “As a writer one is, in effect, lying all the time. But by lying, one comes to a deeper truth. One that is more dangerous, perhaps...”
One might wonder whether this price for catharsis is always worth paying. As it happens, Nevo is in an excellent position to judge; together with the poet Orit Gidali, he runs an extensive network of creative writing workshops, the largest private enterprise of its kind in the country. While some of the students have aspirations of becoming published writers, Nevo points out that there are others who do not necessarily share this ambition.
“For many of my students, writing is about self-expression, about finding the lost inner voice.” They want to write, not because they see writing as a profession – “I tell them that in Israel it is almost impossible: The Hebrew market is very small” – but because they have to. What they do gain is the capacity to hear themselves, to recognize themselves from their writing. “It is an important thing in life, to know how to listen to oneself.”
As for Nevo himself, is he still able to maintain this capacity? A successful writer in Israel is, by default, a public figure. With a large audience, one supposes that the temptation always exists to write about what one thinks the audience wants to read, rather than what one thinks it ought to read. Nevo disclaims both extremes. “Essentially, I feel very independent, perhaps sometimes even lonely, in my writing.” He refers to his time working in the advertising industry. “After 10 years I can look back and feel nostalgic, but I really hated it at the time, I was really ambivalent about it. When I write, I suspect that I am still celebrating this independence.”
Independence means being true only to oneself. “I don’t feel the pressure to take anything into account when I write; not sales, not my publishing house, not politics, not anything. Writing is my own place.”
But may not this independence run the risk of creating the very bubblehe had decried before? He nods. “If I do have something to say, thenI’ll write it. And I’m fortunate, because it seems that my readers havea lot of acceptance for this. Some don’t agree with my books, with mypolitical outlook, but they can still read my books and enjoy them.”
Eshkol Nevo will be appearing at the Second InternationalWriters Festival at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem, between May 1 and5.