The Anxiety of the Visual
In the second of two essays from the Text and Image in the Novel section of The Future of Text and Image, Ofra Amihay, the book’s other co-editor, focuses her attention on the Israeli novelist Ronit Matalon and her book The One Facing Us. Originally published in 1995 in Hebrew and translated into English in 1998, The One Facing Us is the story of Esther, a teenage girl whose parents send her on a reverse migration from Israel to Cameroon in hopes that living with her uncle might settle her down a bit. Amihay briefly addresses “the anxiety of the visual in traditional Jewish society” before dealing with Matalon as one of several writers whose work has sought to remove “the separation between the textual and the visual.”
Photographs play a crucial role in the novel, serving as a kind of family history and family tree for Esther. Nearly each chapter opens with the reproduction of a photograph and a caption that explains who is in the photograph: “Uncle Sicourelle and Workers, the Port of Douala, Cameroon,” “Father in a Room,” “Jacqueline Kahanoff, Uncle Moise, and Mother, the Banks of the Nile, Cairo, 1940,” and so on. The chapters that don’t begin with a photograph actually open with a “missing photograph,” a gray space complete with photo corners, plus a caption, representing a photograph that Esther remembers but which has become lost. Each of these chapters begins with a prose description of the remembered photograph, a point that Amihay emphasizes.
A lost photograph, Matalon seems to suggest, does not leave a complete void: its imagined “negative” keeps lingering and circulating in the family memory and it remains an active part of the family roots. It is precisely the portability of the photograph that makes the photograph/roots analogy so central in constructing the postcolonial stance in this novel, in locating culture in the realm of the beyond and in focusing on immigration as a state of mind.
Amihay’s essay explores the way in which Matalon’s use of photographs helps “tell the story of Jewish immigration from the inside,” especially “immigration as a postcolonial state of mind.” Esther “acquires her identity” largely through photographs. But until the photographs are given history and context they remain meaningless, as is clear when Esther mediates between family photographs and her blind grandmother, explaining to her grandmother what is visible so that her grandmother can supply the relevant family history and context.
Amihay suggests that “Matalon chooses to write in a manner in which the photographs themselves can be designated as immigrants – belonging to the visual world, immigrating into the textual one.” Photographs symbolize a “strategy of survival” which is both “transnational and translational.” Amihay’s intriguing essay has encouraged me to pull Matalon’s book off my shelf and move it a little higher on the “must-read” stack.