Everyone Is Complex: A Conversation with Assaf Gavron of “The Hilltop”




ASSAF GAVRON, the Israeli novelist whose most recent Israeli bestseller, The Hilltop, has just been published in paperback (Simon & Schuster) was in Los Angeles recently to speak at UCLA about “The Personal and the Political.”

Gavron was born in Israel in 1968. He has worked at an Israeli technology company and is the singer and songwriter of the Israeli band The Mouth and Foot. He has also been a journalist, writing about music and food, and has translated into Hebrew works by J. D. Salinger (Nine Stories), Philip Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint), and Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated). Gavron is also the author of five novels and a collection of short stories. (A collection of his journalism has also been published.)

“The Hilltop” is Ma’aleh Hermesh C, an illegal outpost of Jewish settlers that according to government records doesn’t exist, posing as an extension of an existing settlement. Therefore it cannot get water or electricity, and residents can’t build permanent structures — yet they do. The Army would like to remove it, but must on occasion defend it, and the settlement must deal with a complex stew of Israel ministers, politicians, government agencies, supporters, and opponents, not to mention its testy relationship with its neighboring Palestinian village. At the center of the narrative are two Israeli-born brothers — Gabi and Roni — both of whom end up on the hilltop to reboot their lives.

Gavron’s visit was sponsored by the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, and co-sponsored by the UCLA Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, the Department of Comparative Literature, the Center for Near Eastern Studies, and the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies. Gavron will return to Los Angeles for Literary Death Match on April 8 and will appear at a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on April 10. What follows is an edited version of the conversation we had before his talk.

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TOM TEICHOLZ: You grew up outside Jerusalem in the 1970s and 1980s, which was a very optimistic time in Israel.

ASSAF GAVRON: I remember ’77, ’78, Israel was on top of the world because the Israeli basketball champions won the European Championship. We won the Eurovision Song Contest ’77 and ’78 back to back. There was the Entebbe Operation, and we won Miss Universe. So it was looking like Israel was on top of the world, and everyone liked us, everyone was for us.

Likud came into power then, and although in my eyes that was the start of the process of going bad, the first few years of Likud saw the peace with Egypt. So that was another amazing thing. It was really looking good, and I remember being a kid and being proud of my country.

When did it change?

I think ’82 was a turning point. The Lebanon War was controversial and debatable and there were protests and also the economy started falling apart then. By the mid-’80s the height of optimism was over. Still, the start of the ’90s was the peace process with the Palestinians, the Oslo agreement, and the handshake of Rabin and Arafat. So despite the First Intifada in the late ’80s, it was looking like [the conflict] was over. And again, it was a really good time in Israel.

But you spent most of the 1990s outside the country in school in England and Canada. Why did you leave?

I left because after my army service — some of it in Gaza — I wanted to be out. I wanted to study in the UK. I have a lot of family there. [Gavron’s parents immigrated to Israel from England in the early 1960s.] I had an opportunity to study there. I was really into pop music, and I loved London. So I said I’ll spend a few years outside of Israel and come back. Which is what I did.

How did it impact you? Do you feel that experience changed you?

I was also in Berlin in 2010, and now I’m finishing two years in the States. I guess I need to be outside of Israel every so often because Israel is very intense and difficult. I know that I don’t want to immigrate to another place. I don’t want to start a new life elsewhere. Although my wife wouldn’t mind doing that, and many of my friends have, I know that Israel is the only home for me.

When you came back to Israel, you went to work for a high-tech company.

Yeah, but that was much later. First I wrote journalism.

What kind of journalism?

When I moved to England in the ’90s, I started writing about music, about football, and also about literature a bit.

And once you were back in Israel?

I wrote for a Jerusalem magazine that was really progressive and exciting to work at. A lot of good writers came out of there. I started writing as a journalist, but in the back of my mind I thought maybe someday I’ll start a novel; and my first novel, Ice, was published in Israel in 1997.

But by then you had a real day job.

Yes. I didn’t really seek it out, but it was an opportunity that came my way. Actually, it came out of my translations.

You’d already started doing translations?

I started doing translations a little bit before my own books were published, or more or less hand-in-hand with their publication. This guy from Valis, a tech company, liked one of my translations, and he wanted me to do something related to language. It was kind of a social network for teenagers, and he wanted me to write the language of this system. It was a bit ahead of its time. That’s how he brought me in. I worked there, and I loved it being a proper day job with a proper salary where I went to the office in the morning and came back in the evening.

And there’s also the camaraderie.

Yeah, exactly. The social part of it. I still have great friends from there. It was a really good group. It folded eventually like most startups do. But it was fun while it lasted, and I liked it a lot. Since then I’ve had opportunities to work at other Israeli tech companies, because I knew people from there. But I guess I wanted to be a writer more.

You translated J. D. Salinger and Philip Roth into Hebrew. Did doing so give you any special insight into their writing?

I don’t know if I broke a code, but I learned from it. In my experience, when you do a translation, you really get into the depth of the writing. In most cases, you eventually appreciate it a bit less because you see all the faults, the skeleton and bones of the book. But with Roth and Salinger, the more I worked on it, the more I appreciated their craft. It was the opposite effect.

Portnoy’s Complaint is very much a performance piece of a novel. It is driven by a tummler’s spirit. How did you find an equivalent in Hebrew for that voice?

I don’t think about it consciously, I just write. I do a translation and then just write it in the voice of the original writer, whether it’s Roth or J. K. Rowling.

Right, you also translated J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy into Hebrew.

Of course when I do a translation, it’s me writing, but the atmosphere and the voice is the writer’s, so I have a lot of fun doing it.

What did translating teach you about writing novels?

I see my translation work — not only the great novels, but all the ones I’ve done — as my personal creative writing workshop, because I never did one myself. Doing a translation you see how it’s done by rewriting the books. You are just rewriting an existing book. You don’t have any of the inventive or the creative part you have as a writer — that’s why I feel my translations are a lesser achievement than my own writing. Still, with every translation, you have to find a way to write it. And in the writing of it, you encounter consciously and unconsciously the structure of the novel, the pacing, the way things move, the characters, the dialogue, all the different elements. And you see all the faults too.

So let’s now talk about The Hilltop, which has been translated into English by Steven Cohen. How did that process feel from the other side?

English is different than the other languages my work has been translated into because I can read it. With other languages sometimes you get questions from the translator and you kind of get who they are. But, really, you just have to trust them. But with English, it’s really a joint effort of the translator and myself and the American editor. I’m happy to be in a position that my English is good enough to read it and to give comments and catch mistakes.

What role did the American editor play with The Hilltop?

He played a huge role. In this book, he was just very involved in the text and sent me edits. The editor and I had a couple of reservations with the translation, in places, so we needed to work on that, but I think eventually the three of us together brought it to a really good place. In some cases a line would be deleted because it was too local — some cultural or religious thing that by the time you explain it, you lose the flow, the fluidity, the rhythm. So we did things like that. But in general we didn’t really add or delete.

When I read The Hilltop I kept thinking: Whose story is this? Is it Roni’s? Is it Gabi’s? But when I got to the end of the book, I realized that it’s the hilltop’s story.

It’s the story of the place but also the story of Israel.

I saw The Hilltop very much as an exploration of Zionism in a post-Zionist world, because all the characters are fervently Israeli, regardless of their politics, age, or where they are living, even if it’s New York. It’s all these different types of Israeli-ness that you’re not judgmental about. You just bring them to life.

Most of the novel is set in Israel itself, but you’re right about the American parts too. I think at some point while writing, I realized that it’s not only about the hilltop. “The hilltop” represents the current state of Israeli-ness and Zionism, but I wanted to show a larger picture and to reach out in time and in geography to the occupied territories, to Tel Aviv, to America, and show those different types of Israeli-ness. Still, the settlement, what is going on there, I think, is at the forefront of the current state of Israeli-ness. They’re a minority, especially the kinds of settlers in the hilltops. Still, the ethics, the way they behave, the way they come into contact with the different, other reference points like the army, and the local Palestinians, is very much the state of current Israel. So I widened the scope to show that.

So much of Israeli literature can be grouped or categorized by geography. The kibbutz writers, for instance, or the writers whose work is centered in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. It seems like with The Hilltop, you were staking out your own territory.

Maybe. But I wasn’t thinking like that. I grew up near Jerusalem. I live in Tel Aviv, and I love Tel Aviv, but I feel like an underdog from Jerusalem. I’m always careful about not setting my work in Tel Aviv if I don’t have to, but here I did want to set part of it in Tel Aviv. But, as you say, it’s all over the place.

I mean, it’s a very wide spectrum, almost like a 19th-century novel.

Yes in terms of the scope and the type of drama. About a week ago I was in San Diego at UCSD, and a professor of Russian literature said it was Dostoevskian. From her, it’s a real compliment.

The Hilltop is also surprising in terms of its tone. The book opens with the dedication of a new playground at the hilltop. In attendance are the hilltop’s residents as well as an American donor and a Washington Post reporter who’s there by mistake. With this combustible mix, the story could well have turned into a Bonfire of the Vanities or a Catch-22. Every time the narrative threatens to turn into high comedy, though, you dig deeper into the characters.

Instead of being explosive in a dramatic way, I tried to keep to how it really is there, because it is a realistic novel. I wanted to convey the atmosphere. And the atmosphere was not explosive. The violence in the story is really on the level of stone-throwing and olive tree burning. However, the possibility of violence is a tension that is always there and a fear that is always there. The story is always developing. The story is important. And there are many stories and many characters. But it’s not explosive in a dramatic way because that’s the reality.

Your main characters are deeply flawed and contradictory. Gabi is so likable but has a secret anger. Even Neta, the irate settler, has a nice side.

I think everyone is like that. Everyone is complex. In a novel that is true to humanity, you will not have caricatures. You will not have one-dimensional characters, particularly if you write about people you have very strong feelings and opinions about. Last week I was asked, again, how could you portray these settlers as human beings? How can you humanize them? I said I don’t need to humanize them. They’re human already.

True, but in the realm of fiction, and in this particular setting of The Hilltop, and the illegal outpost community, one could easily imagine the appearance of a Philip Roth–esque character from Operation Shylock, or Mickey Sabbath from Sabbath’s Theater — a larger-than-life extremist. Those characters could exist in this world, but you don’t go to that register. Your tone is different. Similarly, when one thinks of Salinger’s characters, they too are often lost souls searching for their identity, looking for meaning and unable to negotiate the status quo. But your characters don’t suffer in that way. You maintain a world in which people and situations, as the book says, go on and on and on.

Gabi does have a kind of an extreme violent streak, but then you’re right. I think both brothers have a hopeful outcome.

The two brothers could well have been like Cain and Abel or Jacob and Esau. Roni is someone who has no impulse control. He does as he pleases. While Gabi is a very repressed character trying to suppress his impulses. Roni is all id and Gabi all superego.

I didn’t plan that consciously, but they’re very different and also very fond of each other, as brothers. They each show different kinds of Israeli-ness, and both are very Israeli in very opposing ways: Roni is the macho Israeli, the go-getter. From childhood, he does well in basketball and he gets the girls and he goes into the Golani unit in the army, and when he goes into business he does well there and then he wants to conquer in New York. Still there’s always this kind of happy-go-lucky part of him and this sense that he’s on the edge and might go over the edge — which eventually he does. With Gabi, it’s the more laid back, shy, sensitive type of Israeli, but there is always a hint of violence in there.

Beneath the surface.

Yes, and I think violence is something that is there in Israeli society because of our history.

The Hilltop, as a work of fiction, doesn’t take a political stance. However, recently you published an op-ed in The Washington Post titled “Confessions of an Israeli Traitor,” calling for an end to the occupation in the West Bank. Do you feel that as an Israeli writer you have to speak out?

No one has to do anything they don’t want to do.

I meant you, personally.

I do feel that, yes. I have an option, and I want to use this option. I don’t believe that I need to express my political opinion in my fiction. You can argue that The Hilltop shows settlers in a positive light. Politically I don’t agree with them. So I want to express my opinions, and I think doing so is important, not only for writers. In the current Israel, it’s important to voice that point of view against the occupation because it’s now being really crushed. They’re trying to crush it and they’re trying to silence it. Yes, if I’m a writer and I have the opportunity to voice that point of view then I have to do it.

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Tom Teicholz is a writer living in Los Angeles.



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