Some books grow out of their author’s desire to engage the reader in an issue they feel passionate about, such as Jane Rawson on climate change in A wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (my review) and Charlotte Wood on the scapegoating of women in The natural way of things (my review). Sara Dowse’s latest book, As the lonely fly, falls into this category, but for Dowse the issue is the Israel-Palestine problem, the “rightness” or otherwise of establishing a Jewish state. This doesn’t mean, however, that books so inspired are boringly earnest or stridently polemical. It’s a risk, of course, but in the hands of good writers, like the three mentioned here, issues are turned into stories that engage us, while simultaneously raising our consciousness.
Unlike Rawson and Wood’s more dystopian novels, Dowse uses historical fiction, with a hint of mystery/thriller, to explore her ideas. The novel is set in the first half of the twentieth century, and follows the lives of two Russian-Jewish sisters, Clara and Manya, and their niece, Zipporah. We start, theoretically at least, with Clara (who changes her name to Chava when she arrives in Palestine), but are immediately introduced to her younger sister Manya (who had migrated to the US with their parents and who becomes Marion). Niece Zipporah, the committed Zionist who followed Clara to Palestine, opens Part Two.
The story is divided into 6 parts in fact, the first labelled “Clara begets Chava 1922-1925” and the last “Tikkun? 1967” (“tikkun” being, significantly, a Hebrew word for “fixing/rectification”). The narrative has an overall forwards momentum, but the chronology is not linear and the perspectives change. Following all this requires an alert reader, but it enables Dowse to fill in backstories at the relevant moment (such as Clara’s experience of the 1905 Odessa uprising) and to link various characters and ideas. Her goal is to explore the difficult situation confronting Eastern European Jews in the early 20th century and the concomitant creation of Israel. In so doing, Dowse raises bigger questions about idealism and justice, and exposes the challenges of migration, particularly of migration that is politically charged.
While Part One is labelled 1922-1925, the first chapter is headed “Marion 1967”, ensuring an important, comparative, role for the American experience. However, the bulk of this part tells of socialist Clara/Chava’s early days working to create a new Jewish state. It’s not long before the hard-working Chava starts to question what they are doing, to see the difference between the political Zionism of Herzl and the cultural (or spiritual) one of Ahad Ha’am. She starts to agree with Ha’am, as she writes to Marion,
that there shouldn’t even be a state like the one Herzl advocated, but a centre in Palestine where Jews reconnect with our culture and from there would disseminate it through the Diaspora. That the land wasn’t empty as Herzl had us believe, that it would be difficult to find land that wasn’t already cultivated, and the Arabs wouldn’t be overjoyed about the space we’d taken up in what happened to be in their land too. Or ecstatic about losing their jobs. The Marxist in me is increasingly uneasy about this … (Pt 2, Ch. 11, Uncorrected proof copy)
If you are an Australian, this idea of taking up space that’s not empty will resonate, as I’m sure Dowse intends it to do!
… too much head …
Eventually Chava finds occupying this already occupied land too difficult and, after supporting an Arab uprising, willingly returns to Russia where, unfortunately, she finds anti-semitism on the rise. Meanwhile, Zipporah provides a foil to Chava, retaining her commitment to the Zionist ideal, albeit seeing the trauma that can be caused by commitment to a political idea. The story of her student, Talli, provides this insight. Dowse, in other words, provides no easy answers, but forces us to face, through stories of real human beings with whom we fully engage, the complexity of the situation.
Chava meets in Jerusalem, a cobbler, Ha-Kohen, a spiritual rather than a political Hebrew man. He says to her:
You and your chaverim, those pals of yours, can you really believe all those things you read? It’s all from the head. And the source of all evil on this earth is too much head, my dear, and not enough heart. (Pt 2, Ch. 10, Uncorrected proof copy)
A little more empathy, in other words, is what is needed.
As the lonely fly could be described as a family saga. There are many characters besides the three women I’ve introduced here – including another sister (Zipporah’s mother) and her family, various friends and colleagues, and a love interest or two – and the novel spans six decades from 1905 to 1967. There’s also a thriller element including some espionage, and a nod to the mystery genre too. What is wrong with Talli, and what does happen to Clara? Through these Dowse explores her themes while involving us in real lives – via lovely domestic details of rooms, meals and close relationships, and vivid descriptions of place. By the end of the novel I was deeply engaged with her characters and their dilemmas, whether or not I agreed with all their decisions.
… the passion for justice …
Manya/Marion is a somewhat more shadowy character than Clara and Zipporah, and yet, as the one who migrated to America, the land of the free, she provides an important counterbalance to the lives of the other two. On the surface, her ambition to be an actor, and her oh so western focus on colouring her hair, on “the showering, the creaming, the makeup’, are as “exasperating” to us as they are to Zipporah, but she is the character who opens and closes the novel, so we need to heed her. Her idealistic, bookish husband, Sidney, dies a very American death, and leaves her with two young sons. It provides a counterpoint to the high drama that was occurring in Israel.
In the loneliness of her later years, she finds herself still struggling to understand him, but she comes to see that both his and Clara’s idealism was really “a passion for justice”. In the book’s final chapter, she and Zipporah, whom she visits in Israel, attend a Hebrew performance of a favourite play of hers, O’Neill’s The iceman cometh. Now, I don’t know this play – besides knowing of its existence – but I presumed Dowse had chosen it for a reason, so I checked Wikipedia. It told me that the play’s main themes are the self-deceptions, the pipe-dreams – the lies, in other words – that we tell ourselves to keep going. The play references, apparently, political ideals such as anarchism and socialism. Certainly, Clara discovers her socialist ideals being undermined when the factory managers in Soviet-era Moscow start employing capitalist techniques to increase production. However, I’m sure Dowse intends us to read O’Neill’s theme in terms of how we behave today – in relation to Israel/Palestine and to all the other injustices that we see around us, but try to justify away.
The past is not, in fact, the burden we thought, says Zipporah to Marion. It’s the future we need to worry about. Like all good ideas novelists, Dowse has not bombarded us with answers but, instead, has intelligently and compassionately given us plenty to think about.
To be published: June 2017
(Advanced review copy courtesy For Pity Sake Publishing)