Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (trans. from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston)
Pushkin Press, March 2016
My copy supplied by the publisher via NetGalley.
Waking Lions, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen's second novel, has a desperately compelling beginning. Tired and groggy after a long night shift Dr. Eitan Green gets into his brand new SUV and drives out to the desert. It's hours after midnight and dark; he should go home to where his wife Liat and two sons are still sleeping. Instead he takes his car off-road, looking for a quick burst of adrenaline at high speed under the stars. He turns the music up, feels his blood sing with exhilaration. His career isn't quite what he wants it to be, exiled to a hospital in the back of beyond, but he has a good life, a loving family. Then he hits a man, an Eritrean refugee. The man is still alive but barely, his head mushed to pulp in parts; even if Eitan called for an ambulance he would die anyway. His life would be utterly ruined. He could go to prison for manslaughter. So he makes a decision, to pretend it never happened. There was no night time drive. There was no man. Who is this man anyway? No one. A nameless black man amongst the thousands of undocumented black men flooding over the border from Egypt. Eitan gets back in his car, flees the scene and lets the man die alone by the road side. No one need ever know.
Except someone does know. The next day there is a knock on the Green family front door. Eitan opens it to find a black woman standing there holding his wallet. The man who was killed - his name was Asum - was her husband and she watched the whole thing, unseen in the darkness. Panicked Eitan offers her money, a huge sum, but it isn't money she wants. Her name is Sirkit and she wants a doctor.
So begins Eitan's shadow life. At night, after his paid work, he drives out to Sirkit's camp in the desert and treats an endless queue of migrants and refugees, all illegal and otherwise without medical care. Sirkit watches over him, avenging herself, demanding long hours and impromptu emergency visits. His life becomes a round of lies and evasions, at work and at home, the stress of concealing his "secret hospital" added to the pressing guilt of killing a man. As if matters weren't bad enough Asum's body is discovered and the case is picked up by none other than Eitan's police-officer wife.
You might imagine, from that description, that Waking Lions is part crime novel, part thriller but it isn't really either. The book has two halves, quite distinct in character. In the first part we inhabit the minds of Eitan, Sirkit and Liat, almost completely immersed in their thoughts, assumption, fears and desires. Gundar-Goshen focuses unrelentingly on the psychological effects of the accident, and on the moral compromises that people make every day. It is narrow, claustrophobic reading with little space for peripheral characters, subplot or sense of place. The novel chews on just a handful of fundamental questions: what makes a person good? What evils are we capable of? Can bad actions ever be justified? The second part of the book broadens its scope and commits completely to the repercussions of Eitan's actions. As Liat draws closer to the Asum's killer and Eitan begins to lose control of his sense of self, Sirkit reveals a secret that sends the plot spinning off into high octane shoot outs and car chases. It's a jolting shift, which at first makes the whole feel off-balance.
An intersection of racism and sexism lies at the heart of the book. Eitan's white male privilege is juxtaposed with both Liat's position as a woman in a male-dominated environment and with Sirkit's experience as a black woman, first in Eritrea and then in Israel. Sirkit observes that, even though Eitan is experiencing one of the most terrifying junctures of his life, he still walks without fear. He continues to assume that he deserves to be happy and comfortable and that he will be again. He looks people in the eye because he never occurs to him that he shouldn't. She, on the other hand, is practiced in the art of looking down or looking away. The power her husband's death gives her over Eitan's life is heady and addictive. It is the first time in her life that someone has to do what she tells them to. The novel's portrayal of Sirkit's assertion of will is one of it's most powerful and moving aspects, especially in light of the devastating ending.
Sirkit's rise to power has the knock on effect of disempowering Liat, the other woman in Eitan's life, which in turn impacts on the lives of others. Cut out of her marriage, increasingly embattled at work, she colludes in the arrest and interrogation of a Bedouin teenager she suspects may have killed Asum. Her investigation eventually leads to his village, where a young girl steps forward to stand as his alibi witness. Admitting that she is the boy's lover is tantamount to suicide and it isn't long before her battered body finds it's way through the door of Eitan's desert clinic. Her's is one of many female bodies shattered, bruised and violated in the book as cultural norms - in Israeli, Bedouin and migrant communities - work to silence them. It makes for challenging reading.
Even as Eitan grows to care about and respect Sirkit he continues to think of her in ways that exoticise and degrade her. Seen through his eyes she is the sculpted brazen African queen of Rider Haggard's She, her blackness a sign of a predatory sexuality. He fantasizes about her "velvety skin" and her long neck; it surprises him (and everyone else) that she can speak Hebrew. He interprets her blank silences as a form of aggression when actually they are an armour against her vulnerability. He despises the patients she forces him to treat, viewing them as senseless animals.
Without language, without the ability to exchange a single sentence the way people do - one speaks, the others listen and vice versa - without words, only flesh remained. Stinking. Rotting. With ulcers, excretions, inflammations, scars. Perhaps this was how a veterinarian felt.
He darn't allow himself to open himself to either their humanity or their plight. What would that mean for the cosy safe life he lives, or for the worth of the life he took? Like most people in his situation he does not want to engage with suffering. He recalls a school trip to Auschwitz, the photographs of starving people waiting to die. A friend asked the tour guide: "But why didn't they try to run away?". He remembers the guide's anger; he said anyone who didn't know terror couldn't judge. Back at the hotel the boys had a competition to see who could masturbate the quickest and Eitan "thought that deep down he had also hated them, all those emaciated Jews, walking skeletons, who seeped so deeply into your soul that you couldn't even jerk off decently."
If it weren't clear already, Waking Lions is not a book about beauty or truth but about ugliness and lies. Nor is it a book about redemption or justice or how people are transformed by suffering. It is a thought experiment the shows how resistant we are to those things, especially if they require us to change our way of life. Compassion is in limited supply; it is limited still further by our prejudices. The style of the writing (and of the translation) mirrors this perspective. It is often perfunctory and bald, philosophical rather than poetic; like Sirkit, it only occasionally gives way to emotion. It makes the book hard to the touch, difficult to love, in spite of how compelling and thought-provoking it is. It feels long too but some threads of the story get short shrift in spite of it. In the second half of the book, for example, we're introduced to a new character, a Bedouin boy whose father works as a prop in an "indigenous" experience for holiday-makers. He's outraged by the way his dad is humiliated and gawked at night after night, which leads him to get involved in the local drug trade. His story has a lot to tell about cultural appropriation and the fetishisation of non-white people, but he isn't given enough space to grow and his trajectory is stunted.
I recommend reading Waking Lions between light-hearted frothy books, the sort that leave you bubbly and buoyant. If it affects you as it did me you will finish it feeling slightly dirty, spoiled by whatever privileges and comforts you may enjoy, and guilty, definitely guilty, in your complicity in looking away from suffering.