Raphaël Jerusalmy, for those who, like me, hadn’t heard of him, is a French-born and educated writer living in Tel Aviv. He had a career in the Israeli military intelligence services, worked in humanitarian and educational fields, and is now an antiquarian book dealer in Tel Aviv, where his novella, Evacuation, is set. In some ways, the book is a love letter to Tel Aviv – but it is more than that, too …
Evacuation is a short, quick, but powerful read. The narrative is structured around a road trip, in which twenty-something Naor is driving his mother from her kibbutz home to Tel Aviv. As they drive he tells her what happened in Tel Aviv, after he, his girlfriend Yaël, and his grandfather Saba, had jumped off the bus that was taking them out of the city, as part of a mandatory evacuation process.
The thing about this book is that although we realise the war is part of the ongoing Middle-eastern conflict, no specifics are given. No dates, no enemy, just, later on in the story, that peace negotiations were taking place in Geneva. By the time the novel starts, that peace had been achieved (for the moment anyhow) and Naor is dealing with the aftermath. The lack of specificity universalises the story, focusing us on the characters’ experience more than on the whys and wherefores, rights and wrongs, of the war.
So, their experience. Firstly, I should explain that it was Saba and Yaël who had decided not to evacuate, with Naor feeling obliged to stay with them. They are all artists – Naor a filmmaker, Yaël a visual artist, and Saba a writer – so there is also an underlying thread about art and resistance. They go to friend Yoni’s house in the already evacuated part of the city, and from there they learn how to survive – how to find food, water, clothes – and how to occupy their time. They roam further and further, taking risks to enjoy a dip in the sea; they enjoy strolling down Tel Aviv’s beautiful Rothschild Boulevard; and, they decide to make a film, titled Evacuation, to Naor’s script and with Saba and Yaël acting.
It’s while filming a critical scene in a synagogue that a long-range missile attack occurs, forcing them to take cover. After this attack, Yaël decrees that they are not going to let air-raid sirens disturb their peace again – “From now on, we were going to behave as if there was no war” – setting us up for the tragedy that we have been sensing through Naor’s narration.
Now, I said that the novel focuses more on the characters and their experience, than the war. However, there are occasional references to Zionism and the ongoing political situation, including this on Saba’s opinion:
Deep down Saba wasn’t unhappy about what was happening to Tel Aviv … He said it did no one any harm to get a kick up the arse from time to time. And that we Israelis badly needed it. Because we had got stuck in a stalemate. Not only with the Palestinians, which was of course unfortunate. But also and especially with ourselves, which was much worse.
So the evacuation was timely. It gave us an undreamt-of chance to wipe the slate clean. To start again. In his mind, Zionism as an idea was not a failure. But it was stagnant. It had come unstuck in its application. Because of this and that. Those were his exact words. This and that. He spoke about restarting our attempts at Jewish socialism. About the importance of education. ‘Everything stems from that.’ And about being kinder in general. To poor people, and to Arabs.
There’s also Yaël’s stronger statement that Tel Aviv was the only place she “felt safe. From those at war with us. From those who have morality and justice on their side.” [my stress]
All this is narrated by Naor to his mother as they continue their trip – and as he does, certain things become clear. One is that there’s been some falling out between his mother and Saba, her father, and that this trip is partly a peace-making one (subtly paralleling the political war-and-peace background to the story.)
Now, I daren’t say any more for fear of giving the whole lot away. While it’s written nicely (albeit I read it in translation), its main appeal, besides the story, is its engaging narrative structure and gentle tone. I loved the way Naor’s story is interrupted regularly by comments from his mother (not to mention road signposts). These interactions, while hinting at some of the tensions needing to be resolved, also imbue the book with a lovely normal intimacy, unexpected perhaps in a book with such subject matter.
Evacuation is an open-ended book, one the reader can consider from various perspectives, including the choices we make, love and family, art and resistance, war and peace. I found it a surprisingly enchanting read, which I hope doesn’t make me sound insensitive to its seriousness, because I felt that too.
(Trans. by Penny Hueston)
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2018 (Eng. ed.)
(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)