the matter of science fiction is the geography of reason; of horror, the geography of anxiety; of fantasy, the geography of desire.
–Gary K. Wolfe, “Evaporating Genres”
a tangle of oleander, a watch of nightingales,
vestibules, blogs that warp the soul
–Shimon Adaf, Aviva-lo
Fantasy lovers and American lovers of Israeli literature alike have cause to celebrate. Just last year, Ofir Touché Gafla’s award-winning tale of the afterlife, The World of the End, was translated into English. And now, Sunburnt Faces, the first English translation of a Shimon Adaf novel, has arrived, and it is certain to become a beloved book for many of its readers. Adaf, a literary star in Israel, has won accolades for both his poetry and his fiction. Afficionados of Neil Gaiman, Lev Grossman, and other writers who explore the darker interstices between fantasy and realistic literature will especially take to this bewitching, beautiful, mournful novel. At its best, Sunburnt Faces is achingly fine, and cuts deeply into the heart.
The novel centers on a woman named Ori Elhayani. She lives in Netivot, a poor Israeli town not far from the Gaza border. (Today, Palestinian rockets target the area.) In the first half of the book we meet her in the 1980s, on the cusp of adolescence. Ori has to contend with a number of traumas on top of the already difficult life of a twelve year old girl. She finds some solace in a series of children’s fantasy books, until their American author dies in a car crash in Texas before bringing the series to its conclusion.
The novel then jumps forward twenty years. Ori is living in Tel Aviv, a successful fantasy author herself. She is married and and has a daughter. Yet she is haunted because of events in her past, and slides into a depression from which she may never recover. The adult Ori’s story is punctuated at several points: by an essay, presented as her work, on the nature of fantasy literature, childhood, and sexuality; by letters from a childhood friend from Netivot; and at the end by a resumption of the fantasy series that had been interrupted twenty years earlier.
The scholar Gary K. Wolfe has written that “the matter of science fiction is the geography of reason; of horror, the geography of anxiety; of fantasy, the geography of desire.” And this last, more even than Netivot or Tel Aviv, is the geography of Sunburnt Faces. There is much in this novel about the nature of fantasy and of desire. Adaf references Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, the Oz books, Nabokov and Shakespeare. The novel reflects on the ambivalent place of fantasy literature in Israeli culture, juxtaposing the young Ori’s beloved fantasy writer with Israeli children’s author Galila Ron-Feder Amit’s historical fictions on the one hand, then showing through the story of the older Ori how Israeli culture, led by writers such as Adaf, has absorbed and contributed to new currents in science fiction and fantasy.
As in his other novels, Adaf experiments with the way fantasy’s geography of desire intersects with Jewish texts. In Ori’s case, her “Wonderland,” that magical place through the wardrobe and over the rainbow, to which so much fantasy leads, resembles the mystical orchard of the Talmud, in which the sages enter and are stricken, wounded, never the same.
If all this sounds ambitious, it is, and I have not even mentioned Adaf’s finely wrought portrayal of Ori’s emotional and sexual life, or his rendering of childhood like a Peanuts comic crossed with Hildegard of Bingen, or his electrical prose, rendered well by translators Margalit Rodgers and Anthony Berris. Ori visits a schoolmate in the hospital in Beersheba, then walks outside into a summer night in southern Israel, and:
The canopy of evening was woven from the killing blaze of the firmament, the curved blade of the moon at the end of May, the burnished impudence of the army of stars and the deafening clash of its spear- and arrowheads from Beersheba preening itself by the glow of its streetlights and windows, thousands of unnecessary jewels welcoming a beloved, and not knowing who is at the gate, who has come, and for what. What has come.
In some ways, the Israeli writer Adaf most reminds me of is Amalia Kahana-Carmon.
There is politics in Sunburnt Faces, but not the tendentious kind that weighs a book down. In fact, Ori has no patience for the identity politics which can be just as simplistic and pigeon-holing in Israel as it is in the United States. Like Adaf, Ori is from a Moroccan Jewish household, historically low on the ethnic and socio-economic totem pole, yet she rejects the PC pieties of her well-meaning Ashkenazi husband who patronizingly tells her—his mentality has its closest American analogue in white liberal guilt—“I support your struggle.” “It sounds as if I’m mocking,” she responds to her husband’s constant outrage over ethnic grievance in Israel,
but the truth is I can’t take part in this debate . . . It seems inherently flawed . . . Whites and blacks, oppressors and oppressed, it all seems like the thing itself, but what if it’s actually only a parable and we’re trapped in it. What if we haven’t even perceived yet that there’s a moral. Maybe we’re like children who’ve been told about the fox who went into the vineyard . . . and instead of asking about the meaning of the story, who the fox is, what the grapes signify, what’s the meaning of the fox being stuck in the vineyard, we argue about how many grapes he must have eaten in order to become so fat that he couldn’t get out.
Not all readers will find the novel’s ending fully satisfying. Unlike Halev hakavur (The Buried Heart, 2006), the novel that preceded Sunburnt Faces, Adaf does not tie up loose ends here. Instead, he takes the elements of the earlier novel and strips the skin off them, exposing the bloody musculature beneath. It is sometimes hard to watch, and impossible to look away.