For the last two millenniums, almost all Jews lived in Christian and Muslim countries on the edge of society. One of the major goals and most significant accomplishments of the modern Zionist movement was creating a society where Jews could be at the centre of the social structure.
But in the modern State of Israel, many people still think of themselves as living on the periphery – the peripheriah, as they say in modern Hebrew. Waking Lions, a gripping new novel by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, centres around one such character, Dr. Eitan Green, a talented, young neurosurgeon.
Eitan, a basically moral person, tries to resist the corruption he finds in the hospital where he works in the merkaz (the centre of the State, i.e. the Tel Aviv area), but instead he is banished to Be’er Sheva. Be’er Sheva is by no means the end of the world. It has a world-class hospital (the Soroka Medical Center), where Eitan works, and a world-class university (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev). Eitan lives in the fashionable suburb of Omer in a fancy home. But he still feels he is in exile.
Eitan and his wife, Liat, had differences during their courtship. Liat’s grandmother had taught her “she should always say what she thought ‘because words you don’t say give you constipation.’ ” On the other hand, when Eitan was young, his father taught him “If you talk too much, you use up all your words and have to be silent for the rest of your life.”
But as the novel opens, Eitan and Liat are 15 years into a happy marriage. Liat works as a detective for the Be’er Sheva police force. They are still deeply in love and committed to each other and their two children.
Eitan uncharacteristically goes for a joy ride in his SUV on the outskirts of Be’er Sheva after a late-night shift at the hospital. He accidentally runs over an Eritrean refugee named Asum. Eitan gets out of his car, examines Asum and finds he is still alive. Eitan, the expert neurosurgeon, determines Asum is beyond help; his injuries are such that he will certainly die very soon.
Eitan decides nothing would be gained by reporting the accident, whereas much could be lost. His career could easily come to an end. So he simply drives home. The next day, Liat is assigned to investigate the hit-and-run killing of Asum.
Once Eitan refrains from reporting his late-night accident, he spirals into a series of lies that are likely to jeopardize his work and his marriage. “The lie, like a wool sweater that was itchy at first, had become something he was accustomed to wearing. Felt comfortable in.” Lying becomes a central concern of the novel. Gundar-Goshen writes that it can be done by people who appear to be good and loving.
“People are definitely capable of singing charming songs to their children and telling terrible lies to other people, and sometimes to the children themselves.” Eitan appears to be drowning in a mess of his own making. “Telling a story that differs from reality is quite tiring…. You have to invent details, synchronize facts, fill holes. You never understand how complex reality is until you try to create a replacement for it.”
As the novel progresses, Eitan learns he is not the only one who has created an illusion. And he is not the only one with a “periphery complex.”
His wife was born to a Sephardic family in a development town (classic markers of the peripheriah.) Little by little, the problems she had to overcome to become a successful part of the Israeli mainstream are revealed.
Almost all of the other significant characters in the novel are either illegal Eritrean refugees living near Be’er Sheva, or Bedouin Arabs. Both of these groups are much farther from the centre of Israeli society than Eitan and Liat. The Eritreans, in particular, live a precarious existence, often exploited by unscrupulous employers and others due to their illegal status.
Eitan acquires a deeper understanding of these truly peripheral people as the novel progresses. Not everything about them is positive, but on the most basic level, he learns to think beyond what he was taught in medical school, that from a physical point of view, all human beings are basically the same. Is this also true of people’s emotional lives?
“One person’s affront or jealousy was not identical to another’s. This one’s jealousy was inflamed, and that one’s was mild. Here the affront was benign, there malignant.” Still, he discovers that “despite changes in shape and size,” emotionally, “their internal organs were the same: jealousy, greed, desire, affection, guilt, anger, affront.”
Gundar-Goshen is a gifted writer, and the English translation of Waking Lions, her second novel, reads well. (Her debut novel, One Night, Markovitch, was also recently translated into English.) Gundar-Goshen opens a window on life in Israel and demonstrates that, despite the creation of the State, the problem of the peripheriah persists. More importantly, her novel provides deep insights into human psychology and behaviour, insights that transcend questions of gender, nationality or social status.