January 22, 2008
Michal Govrin’s novel Snapshots tries, with only partial success, to be both a novel of a steamy love triangle and Israeli-Arab politics on the eve of Desert Storm and a novel of ideas, an exploratory meditation on physicality (the physicality of sex, the physicality of architecture) and on history (mostly on the burdens that families and nations bequeath us). (Snapshots, Govrin confides, “began in a conversation with Jacques Derrida…”)
At surface level, the bulk of Snapshots is a one-sided conversation between Ilani Greenenberg, world-famous architect with a radical and feminist bent (teaches in New York, office in Paris, escapee from Israel), and her recently deceased father, an ardent Zionist who she adored and and to whom she tells all – including her sexual passions. “I owe you an explanation, father, a belated one, on my leaving.” Her ongoing conversation with her father is interspersed with short diaristic entries and written “snapshots” – brief, highly descriptive observations about her immediate surroundings. As she puts it: “A precise quality of place – smell, light, touch on the skin, that no sketch, no photo, can convey.” These poetic utterances often serve as a kind of Greek chorus, grounding her (and the reader) in the very here and the right now. Here’s a snapshot taken from the bus near Newark Airport:
Fenced marshes. Reeds. High-tension wires. Plaits of cables.
Bulldozers biting a strip of forest. Preparing another brown surface of naked land for “development.”
Ilani is unhappily married to Alain, a conservative and paranoid Israeli who is convinced that a second Holocaust is inevitable and who globetrots in order to track down Nazi war criminals and other threats to Israel past and present. But Ilani has also been conducting a long-time affair with Sayyid Ashabi, a radical Palestinian theater director who seems to have more than one woman in every port. Ilani, ethically disturbed by the attitude of her father’s generation that the land of Zion was “theirs,” has spent her adulthood in voluntary exile from Israel, until she wins a UNESCO competition to design a monument to peace in Jerusalem. Her monument will be, in her words, an “anti-monument”, a “structure of memory.” She envisions a series of temporary structures called the Settlement of Huts, based on the temporary Sukkah that are built during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. More idealistic than practical, her Settlement of Huts would be a sort of visa-free territory where people from anywhere could live in communal peace for seven days. In keeping with Sukkot, the huts would be continuously destroyed and rebuilt and would serve as a reminder “that to live in this Land you’ve got to know how to let go.”
On the brink of Desert Storm, Ilani decides to take her two small children to Israel to carry on with her project in spite of UNESCO delays. Living in a small apartment and following government instructions to convert their apartments into secure, plastic-sealed environments against chemical attacks (a kind of perverse Sukkah), she and the other residents bond into a temporary community that doesn’t seem to exist elsewhere in her life. In between SCUD missile attacks and working on her project, Ilani visits the uninhabited house of her parents, where she rummages through her father’s archive and reads the memoir he drafted late in life. Up until this point, the uncomfortable and unresolved tensions that have existed between Ilani and her father, her husband, her lover, with, in fact, everyone, all served to keep the book moving nervously forward across a tightrope. But midway, the balancing act (and some of the momentum of the book, it seems to me) collapses. The tipping point comes during a yelling match over the phone with her husband, who is in Moscow researching newly opened KGB files. She wants to, but cannot, say to him: “There is no future without a past.” At that moment Ilani claimed Israel as her past and her future. After one last fling with Sayyid, Ilani feels the pull of family – present and past generations – and returns to Paris and her husband, where she soon discovers she is pregnant – whether by Sayyid or Alain she does not know.
Govrin gives Ilani great descriptive powers. She has an architect’s sensitivity to place, especially to cities, their outskirts, and all of their detritus. And the polyphony of her distinct voices – complex, contradictory, intelligent, articulate – kept me deeply engaged for most of the book. It was a jigsaw puzzle I didn’t particularly want to complete. The weakest link in Govrin’s writing is dialogue; her characters tend to lecture each other rather than talk, often to the point of self-caricature. I don’t even know what to think when Ilani says to a colleague: “I’m…one step beyond the symmetry of hatred, of mutual victimhood, or of guilt feelings.”
Ilani’s final “voice,” if you will, is visual, as befits an architect. The novel includes a dozen real snapshots, as well as several examples of her architectural sketches. The first group of snapshots depicts the desolate industrial wasteland seen from a bus window as Ilani travels from New Jersey to New York City. They serve to underscore her growing isolation in her marriage and her lack of connection to her temporary home in America. The other images were made at or near the proposed site of Ilani’s peace monument in Jerusalem. In these visually complex images, it’s hard to distinguish the rock and rubble of open land from the architectural jumble that is old Jerusalem. While the images themselves are very reminiscent of the deadpan photographs found in W.G. Sebald’s books, Govrin, it seems to me, uses her snapshots to provide a useful visual correlative to Ilani’s narrative. I was a bit disappointed that she used so few; in fact, she limits them to two very brief sections of the book, neither more than a dozen pages long.
I’d love to avoid writing about the opening six pages of the book, but I can’t. So let’s go back to the very beginning. As one first begins to read Snapshots, a young woman named Tirtsa Weintraub is describing a telephone conversation and a meeting she has had with Alain. Ilani has been killed in an automobile accident; Alain is distraught. Alain has also discovered that “personal notes…were in her handbag…everything in Hebrew. It will take me years to decipher. You know, our personal abyss.” (Author’s breathless ellipses, by the way.) Not only that, Tirtsa adds, there were “cartons of documents, piles of paper, photographs I couldn’t identify upside down.” Alain “placed a bundle” in her hands and sent Tirtsa on her way and the result is this book. As these first pages unfold, we also learn that Tirtsa had carried a lengthy, but unrequited crush for Ilani from afar. Ilani scarcely knew she existed and Tirtsa met Alain only for a “single, fleeting encounter” in the door of a cafe, yet we are to believe she is the person who Alain has appointed to stitch together Ilani’s memoirs. Tirtsa, needless, to say, doesn’t even merit a walk-on role in Ilani’s memoirs and after these opening pages she never appears again; she’s just a tool.
Govrin’s prelude seems to me wrong-headed in so many ways. It’s a way of speaking down to the reader; after all, we don’t really need to know how the Ilani’s posthumous narrative came into being. And then, to be blunt, what’s with the lesbian crush? It seems to have no better object than to signal that this book of ideas and politics promises to also deal with human emotions and sexual politics. Worse, Ilani’s convenient death is a soap opera cop-out, allowing Govrin to avoid the ultimate authorial decision: whose child is Ilani carrying? At book’s close, an exhausted Ilani stubbornly begins to drive from Paris to Munich, still talking quietly to her dead father, banally recording the minor details of the drive, and slowly becoming aware of the future that is growing within her own body. Ilani’s narrative abruptly ends, of course, just before her fatal accident. But this is precisely where Govrin’s novel of ideas would have gotten really interesting and it’s where Ilani would have had to finally make a decision worthy of the one her parents had made so many decades earlier when they chose their promised land.
My advice is simple. Read Snapshots but start on page 7.