Monday, July 1, 2013

The Wall

I'd hesitated to read TheWall by William Sutcliffe.

It's a story that, without directly saying so, is about the Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, about Palestinian life in West Bank cities and villages torn asunder by the ever-encroaching settlements and the apartheid wall. The story is framed as a first-person narrative by an Israeli boy--it's seen through an Israeli child's eyes, not a Palestinian's. And it's not written by a Palestinian. For all these reasons I'd been leery. In a novel that fits this description there's so much that could go wrong, even with the best authorial intentions.

Then I read this review by Palestinian-American author Susan Abulhawa, whose wonderful novel Mornings inJenin I'm glad to have occasion to plug here again, as the international bestseller translated into 33 languages is beyond crucial reading for anyone who seeks to understand the Palestinian experience of the criminal racist Zionist project. Abulhawa opens her review, sure enough, by noting "that a Palestinian might have reason for pause when confronted with a novel that reflects life under Israeli occupation, written by a British Jewish author.

"Right or wrong," she writes, "the author's background is relevant to me in such circumstances. So I admit that I picked up Sutcliffe's latest novel, The Wall (Bloomsbury, 2013), holding my breath, because a people's narrative, their truth, their memories, and their very real pain, is not to be taken lightly in literature."

Given these caveats, Abulhawa's conclusion is stunning. She calls The Wall "the best work of fiction on Palestine written by a non-Palestinian."

Wow. Sutcliffe must be humbled by such strong praise from such an esteemed source. Please read Abulhawa's full review. And, if you care to, the following few thoughts of mine.

Sutcliffe subtitles the novel "A Modern Fable." Indeed, it's a fast read with few characters, a clear through line and, most important, an unambiguous moral center. This is a story about a young person discovering hidden truths, finding out he's been lied to, finding friends where he's been warned were his enemies, and finding the strength to do the right thing, ultimately at profound personal cost.

The last page had me weeping, as the protagonist tells us:
I tried to help and I failed, but I can try again, and I can keep trying, and if I fail again I can try once more. With this realization, I immediately feel renewed, fortified, blessed, knowing that even if I spend my whole life failing, I will be failing at something I believe in; I will be fully alive and fully me. If the alternative is to do nothing, to forget, there is no alternative at all. How can I possibly forget [phrase redacted to avert plot spoiler] … the soldiers and The Wall and the people who are supposed to be invisible?
His name is Joshua, clearly an allusion to the biblical story—only this Joshua, we're left hoping, will not be the leader of an army of invasion. This Joshua will do what he can as a supporter of an army of liberation led by the oppressed themselves, an army that will bring the racist occupiers' apartheid wall tumbling down. (Modern-day Jericho is itself in the West Bank, and has been occupied and attacked repeatedly by Israel not only in 1967 but repeatedly in the years since.)

I'd also like to think that the novel's title The Wall is a nod to the great 1950 novel of the same name by John Hersey. That earlier book was a fictionalized account of life in the Warsaw Ghetto and the uprising against the Nazi occupiers there by the besieged starving Jews. Sutcliffe is suggesting a parallel, I think, between today's Palestinians—walled off from their land and squeezed into ever shrinking spaces, deprived of their livelihoods, malnourished, unable even to get aspirin as in one of the key plot elements here—and 1943's Warsaw Jews. You know what that makes Israel. And you know I agree.