"I am shocked and grieving, yet hopeful"

Israeli author Zeruya Shalev
Zeruya Shalev cradles an enduring, abstract hope that something new and long-lasting will emerge from these terrible horrors, something that harbours a chance for peace (image: Piper Verlag)

"Dancing, standing still" is the name of the first novel written by Israeli author Zeruya Shalev – now published for the first time in German as "Nicht ich". In it, a child is kidnapped and taken across the border. There is also talk of a tunnel. A conversation about disturbing topicality and the question of where all this is leading us

Interview by Julia Encke

Your first novel came about by chance. You were waiting for someone in a cafe in Jerusalem. Do you remember who it was?

Zeruya Shalev: Yes, I had just started working as an editor for a publishing house and was waiting for an author whose book I had edited. I remember who it was, but the name doesn't matter. He has only published one other book since then.

There were no mobile phones yet, and you started writing on the back of his manuscript. Were these your first sentences as a novelist? The first pages of your book "Dancing, standing still"?

Shalev: Yes, the first pages of the novel remained exactly as I wrote them at the time, in a completely unexpected burst of inspiration. I thought it was going to be another poem, but then I realised that the lines just didn't stop, they got longer and longer and took on a completely different rhythm. I didn't realise it was going to be a novel, and I had no idea how it would develop. Of course, it wasn't the first time I'd written words and sentences and not understood where they were coming from and where they were going, but it was the first time they had drawn me away from poetry and into prose.

The novel is only now being published in German, although it was originally published in Israel in 1993. How was it received?

Shalev: The reception was very cool. Or rather, very heated, because most of the discussions were angry and often quite aggressive: a moral condemnation of the heroine and basically of the author, her character and her decisions. Over the years, this attitude changed. The first research papers were written about the book, and to this day I am surprised when readers tell me that they like this novel more than any of my other books. But in the early days, I had the feeling that the criticism put readers off. Critics had enormous power back then when there was no Internet.

Cover of Zeruya Shalev's "Nicht Ich", published in German by Berlin Verlag
An unexpected burst of inspiration: "'Dancing, standing still' has no coherent plot, no realistic credibility, rather densely compressed emotional content, and there are also many absurd and grotesque situations," says Shalev. "I think it's my funniest book" (image: Berlin Verlag)

The "fresh air of failure"

Did this rejection intimidate or encourage you at the time?

Shalev: I admit I was deeply shaken by the criticism. It hurt to see the book I had written with such passion being humiliated like that. I was young, insecure and inexperienced, and pretty soon I believed the reviews and lost faith in the book and in myself as an author. I decided to stick to writing poetry, but the words stopped coming. I was afraid the authors at the publishing house would no longer trust me and I would lose my job as an editor. 

When I saw the newspapers on display in the corner shop at the weekend, I trembled with fear that I would discover yet another hurtful, scathing review. Looking back, however, I can say that the whole thing was somewhat liberating. When I started writing "Love Life", I felt none of the expectations and fears I had experienced when writing "Dancing, standing still". Apparently, I had filled my lungs with the "fresh air of failure", as Samuel Beckett so brilliantly puts it in "Molloy".

"Love Life" was subsequently made into a film by German actor Maria Schrader and made her world-famous. When did you start writing it?

Shalev: It took me over two years to recover from the criticism, and it wasn't a conscious decision. At some point I had a few sentences in my head that I couldn't stop thinking about until I wrote them down. I was so happy that the words came back to me. I enjoyed the inspiration and didn't worry about how it would be received. And if I did think about it for a moment, I didn't have any great expectations. I wasn't even sure if I wanted to publish the novel.

Your debut "Dancing, standing still" tells the story of a young woman who leaves her husband and daughter for a lover, but it doesn't work out. It is the story of multiple loss. But it is told in a very different way to your later novels. Much more experimental, the language more explicit. How do you yourself see that?

Shalev: "Dancing, standing still" is definitely different from all my subsequent books. It's my first book and it has something provocatively mysterious about it. The book has no structure, which makes it very different from all my other books. It is fragmented, a kind of deconstruction. It has no coherent plot, no realistic credibility, rather densely compressed emotional content, and there are also many absurd and grotesque situations. I think it's my funniest book.

There are some sequences that are nightmarish: the parents get their daughter a male prostitute who takes her virginity. Or surreal: the man is pregnant and the female protagonist has no womb. Or: after the cuckoo clock breaks, the father becomes a cuckoo clock himself and, always on the hour, sticks his head in the door and shouts out some phrase several times. It's really very funny. 

How does the writer Zeruya Shalev of 1993 differ from the writer you are now?

Shalev: I'm not sure I can see myself like that from the outside. Today I am more drawn to people's actions than to their naked internal processes. It gives the impression that I have much more security and control, but I still sometimes feel the same in front of a computer screen or a sheet of paper, alone with the words, as I did back then.

Nothing is certain

Did you feel close to this mother leaving her family, her pain and defiance, back then, or was she more of a stranger to you?

Shalev: My feelings towards her varied a lot. I tried not to judge her, even when she said things that were difficult to bear. I know she was provocative, but behind it all I could feel her pain. No, she was never a stranger to me. When I was a student, I had a neighbour, older than me, who once told me that she had had to leave her children with her husband after she fell in love with another man. I didn't live there for long, but I remember looking at her and thinking to myself, how much pain does this woman carry around inside her the entire time? And then, years later, when I became a mum myself, it evolved into this book.

What pulls the rug out from under the narrative the whole time is the relationship to the truth. Nothing is certain, the narrator hints at it again and again. Is there any certainty in this novel?

Shalev: The heroine presents quite different and contradictory versions of herself and her losses. The only certainty is that there was a great loss, that her world shattered. Presumably it was her fault, her decision, and this burden is so hard to bear that she tries to share it with the readers.

There is also a political component. The little daughter seems to have been kidnapped at the beginning, taken from the playground and across the border by soldiers. Reading this today, one immediately thinks of the hostages of 7 October 2023, of the terrorist act by Hamas in Israel. Do you feel the same way?

Shalev: It's shocking. I've been thinking about it since 7 October. Not only is the girl kidnapped in one version, but the narrator also talks about corridors under the kindergarten where children disappear from time to time.

She says that she knew a few months before the girl disappeared that something terrible awaited her ...

Shalev: ... yes, and she suspected the kindergarten: "Too many underground passages lead to this kindergarten," she says to her husband again and again. "There are too many people walking around. I'm sure every now and then a child disappears unnoticed in these corridors."

What were you alluding to back then?

Shalev: In "Dancing, standing still", it's all unrelated. It's clear that it's an inner reality, not an actual event, but of course these unbearable images are influenced by the reality of life in Israel, even thirty years before 7 October 2023. As a young mother, I suddenly experienced the events in Israel at that time twice as intensely. Everything I had experienced in my childhood and youth a few kidnappings from the 1970s had a huge impact on me – and everything that happened after I became a mother.

After the birth of my daughter, the newspapers reporting the outbreak of the first Intifada lay on my bed in hospital. My sense of security was shattered. When my daughter was three, we fitted her with a children's gas mask and later placed her in a special sealed plastic tent to protect her from the threat of chemical weapons during the Gulf War. Of course, such events find their way into your nightmares, and when this is mixed with guilt, remorse and very ambivalent feelings, everything gets mixed up.

The need to keep Jewish-Arab dialogue going

You were seriously injured in a suicide bomb attack by a Palestinian in Jerusalem in 2004. The assassin was a 24-year-old policeman from Bethlehem, a member of the Fatah-affiliated Aksa Martyrs Brigades, who declared in his farewell message that his act was revenge for an Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip. However, this has not stopped you from consistently campaigning for understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. Last year in particular, you were highly critical of the Netanyahu government. How do you see the situation now, three months after the Hamas massacre?

Shalev: The last few months have been horrific and there is still no end in sight. I am shocked and grieving. I keep looking for signs of hope. One hope is the awakening of Israeli civil society, something that occurred during the anti-government protests and which continues now even in times of war, in a wide range of voluntary work where the government is not fulfilling its duties and the state is not functioning. Another hopeful sign is that the majority of Israeli Arabs are also showing solidarity. A few days ago, I spoke at a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony organised by "Women Make Peace" in the "Square of the Kidnapped" in Tel Aviv. There are so many people, so many women, who are fighting to keep the Jewish-Arab dialogue going. And there is also the hope, which admittedly still seems very abstract at this point, that something new and long-lasting will emerge from these terrible horrors, something that harbours a chance for peace.

What is the situation like in Haifa, where you live?

Shalev: So far, Haifa has been relatively safe. But if the confrontation with Hezbollah in the north escalates, Haifa will be heavily shelled, just like during the Second Lebanon War.

There are still hostages in captivity.

Shalev: It's horrific to imagine what those kidnapped and taken to Gaza are going through. What is happening to the young women after we have seen what Hamas is capable of? What is happening to the elderly, the wounded? The Israeli government, the West, the USA and all those who value human rights must do everything they can to free these people alive from the hands of these sadistic terrorists.

We see how the Palestinian people are trapped. They are sent from north to south, then the south is attacked. At the same time, high-tech Hamas tunnel systems have been discovered. Where is all this leading us?

Shalev: I hope it leads to the Hamas leaders surrendering and the war stopping. The situation for the people of Gaza is heartbreaking. It is another part of this great tragedy that Hamas is bringing upon our whole region. Hamas is shooting from private homes, from hospitals, abusing the population as human shields and denying them access to safe areas. The people of Gaza deserve better leadership, Hamas is not interested in them at all. I hope that this terrible war will lead to everyone in the region uniting against the extreme fundamentalists. I hope that the war will end soon and that we will have new elections to get rid of Netanyahu and his government.

You grew up in a kibbutz yourself. When the young writer Zeruya Shalev wrote "Dancing, standing still" in the cafe, would she have thought it possible that a situation like the massacre could ever occur?

Shalev: Unfortunately, it wasn't that far off back then either. Kibbutz Kinneret, which my grandparents and others helped to found in the 1920s and where my mother grew up, was in great danger in 1948, just like the other kibbutzim in the area. My mother's first husband, who survived the Shoah, fell together with many other young people in defence of these kibbutzim. There was no doubt at the time: if the Syrian army were to storm a kibbutz, then a massacre of the inhabitants would follow. My mother's stories about that time are engraved on my memory, and they returned with horrific vividness on the Sabbath of 7 October. It is as if you can hear an echo of the whole of Jewish history in the events of 7 October.

Interview conducted by Julia Encke

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung/Qantara.de 2024