After a little time in Iraq, today’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize stopover takes us to Israel, where we’ll hang around in Jerusalem and meet a couple of the country’s Arab inhabitants. They’re very different people, but their lives are inextricably bound – by a small scrap of paper…
Exposure by Sayed Kashua – Chatto & Windus
(translated by Mitch Ginsberg)
What’s it all about?
We first meet a lawyer in Jerusalem, a young Arab living in comfort with his wife and two children. While he’s happy with his lot, he knows deep down that he has missed out on certain facets of a more cultural upbringing, so he likes to buy books from time to time (even if he doesn’t always read them…) in an attempt to build up some cultural street cred.
One day though, after buying a copy of Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, he finds that he’s getting more than he bargained for. Inside the book, there’s a love letter – one which the lawyer is convinced is in his wife’s handwriting. It’s at this point that we jump back a few years to a second strand of the story, one in which a young social worker is about to meet an attractive young woman. Perhaps the lawyer’s suspicions aren’t that far off the truth…
Exposure is an interesting, highly plot-driven book, a novel which, in addition to constructing a race against time over two different periods, takes a look at the lives of the (successful) Arabs of the Israeli state:
“Lawyers, accountants, tax advisors, and doctors – brokers between the noncitizen Arabs and the Israeli authorities, a few thousand people, living within Jerusalem but divorced from the locals among whom they reside. They will always be seen as strangers, somewhat suspicious, but wholly indispensable.”
p.10 (Chatto & Windus, 2013)
Our lawyer is a prime representative of these people, and he has become fairly successful in his dealings with the poorer Arabs living in Jerusalem.
The social worker is a different story. He has just started out on his professional path, wasting his time in a clinic where there’s very little to do. An outsider from a young age, he’s in no hurry to return to his village, detesting the overgrown children who strut about there:
“I couldn’t figure out how it was that these overgrown kids could still intimidate me. You idiots, you assholes, if only you knew what I know. If only you knew what you look like to people who don’t live in these little hole-in-the-wall towns. If only you could see how lame your lives are. If you had even the slightest awareness of your social status, you’d lock yourself up in your house and never come out.” (p.273)
However, he’s also struggling to find a place for himself in a confusing, alien society, a second-class citizen living amongst the elite. It’s then that he begins a part-time job looking after a young Jewish man in a coma, a man who he actually resembles physically. This resemblance leads to an idea which will both change his life and threaten the lawyer’s attempts to track him down years later.
This book was published in the US under the title Second Person Singular, and both the title and the cover (with an Arab man hiding his face behind a book with a Jewish man’s face on the cover) hint at a subtle, literary text. This UK version, by contrast, is going for more of a thriller vibe, with its short title, familiar thriller-style design and an intriguing blurb:
“Maybe it was just a game, I don’t know. But suddenly, I was someone else, someone unfamiliar, foreign…”
Having read the book, I tend to think that the British publisher had the right idea – this is a book to pitch to thriller readers, not fans of literary fiction…
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
No, sorry, not in my opinion. It’s not a bad book – although it starts very slowly, the pace slowly increases, and it’s definitely a page-turner. The two-strand idea works well, culminating in a meeting which closes the story off nicely (I’m still not completely sure whether the ending is clever or cheesy though…). It’s not really a book that I’d expect to see in this kind of prize, however, with some fairly pedestrian prose in places.
While it’s actually not the worst of the books I’ve read from the longlist so far, I’d have been very disappointed if this had made it into the final six. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t recommend it. If you like the sound of this plot, please go ahead and read it – just don’t expect anything too profound…
Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
I’m not really sure why it made the longlist, to be honest…
Well, moving on from Israel, it’s time to pack up and head off to Japan, where we’ll be meeting a whole array of characters in a fairly short book. Once again, however, things beneath the surface are a lot darker than they first appear – if you were looking forward to a happy read, you might be waiting a while…