The Debba, by Avner Mandelman. Other Press, July 2010. 368 Pages. $14.95 Paper.
Avner Mandelman’s short story collection, Talking to the Enemy, published in 2002, contains as cogent an indictment possible of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Stark prose captures the moral darkness of two peoples trying to get even by separate mandates from God, and their screeds that both descend from Abraham—what Mandelman calls a “marvelously original con job”. His characters are hard and bitter. One protagonist, after losing a son to a terrorist and subsequently retaliating in a commando assassination, sleeps with his remarried ex-wife and muses, “If you can bring yourself to share your woman, maybe one day you could also let yourself share your land.” Though perhaps overlooked in the larger context of literature, a couple of the stories were deservedly selected for Best American Short Stories, The Journey Prize Stories, the Pushcart Prize XX, as well, the collection made Kirkus Reviews top twenty-five of 2002. Thus, with much obligatory “anticipation”, I read Mandelman’s novel, The Debba, released this summer.
Enter David Starkman, a former Israeli soldier fed up with strife and contradiction. It is 1977, he has renounced Israeli citizenship and lives in Toronto, his mother is dead, and he has no contact with his father, Isser Starkman. When Isser is butchered by an assumed Muslim assassin David is compelled to return to Israel, where he becomes involved in various intrigues. Foremost among them is the request, in his father’s will, to stage the elder Isser’s play The Debba, a controversial theatre piece performed once, thirty years previous, and led to riots. The play is based on the mythical beast of same name, a half man-half hyena that wreaks terror upon the enemies of Allah. Isser Starkman’s murder and his past have various layers, as he was also an assassin best known for supposedly killing the terrorist Abu Jalood. The plots and subplots, though, are many. In order to have a better understanding of the novel it helps to have background history of the Middle East, the Balfour Declaration, the First Events to the end of the British Mandate and beyond; how the Hagganah became the Israeli Defense Force, how the Six-Day War moved the borders, and it wouldn’t hurt to know that gelignite is an explosive compound made from nitroglycerine, wood pulp, guncotton, and potassium nitrate. Still, even erudite scholars and the likes of Edward Said or Thomas Freidman might find him or herself lost in the morass of The Debba.
David Starkman is a fascinating and complex character. He became a soldier and an assassin in an elite army unit, but is haunted by his experiences. His military training began in the Unit, where graduates learn “Arabic, as well as Arabic customs, proverbs, and Islam in order to be able to act like Arabs and pass for them so as to kill them more easily.” The Unit prepares members for the Sayaret Almonit, or Anonymous Ones, whose chief goal is to perform “dreck”: “Doing dreck meant killing key individuals in Arab countries in times of non-war so that war, when it came, would be shorter and less costly.” Yet David makes a horrible error when, in an act of mercy, he disobeys an order, and this leads directly to the deaths of fellow soldiers and he is sent to Military Prison Number 4 for a short period as punishment. Unfortunately, this past plays less a role than it ought to, and becomes just one of many side stories, most of which go nowhere.
An example of another complexity lost is David’s relation with his girlfriend. He leaves her when he returns to Israel, and subsequently stays with a friend and army buddy Ehud, and his wife, Ruthy. An affair is in the works. Wretched or morally ambiguous protagonists often make for a captivating novel, but sticking with David becomes a challenge. Jenny, his girlfriend in Canada, seems to serve no purpose other than to show him as a cad. Why, early in the novel, does he muse: “Jenny’s father used to beat her, even rape her (that’s what she said)…?” The parenthetical statement reveals him, but also the author’s method of storytelling. Why put such a proverbial “gun on the wall” and refuse to pull the trigger? Jenny’s presence in the novel takes away from the greater picture, and the way Mandelman ties her to plot, when he does, seems misleading and almost cruel.
The interesting ideas, David’s personal scabs, his disillusion with Israel, his military history, and the exploration of the religious elements of the conflict, become lost as well, taking a back seat to action sequences, sometimes a fight, other times a chase. Mandelman will interrupt action for a statement on religion, such as his father’s “…raging at the death of men and beasts by the order of an evil book…” or that players in the conflict are “…hearing their own god’s Mein Kampf.” The novel wavers between pure thriller and literary polemic.
What Mandelman spends a large part of the novel is on The Debba, both the myth and the play, and the subplots that ensue. David, for some reason not clearly explained, finally becomes determined to produce the play, and as word spreads he begins to receive threats. Are they coming from the Palestinians? The Israelis? Members of the secular intelligentsia? Fundamentalist nuts? All possibilities are raised, including the fact that the terrorist Abu Jalood may still be alive, that Jalood might be the Debba, that Issher Starkman might not be who his son assumed he was, and that his father’s role and life had a mythical aspect. Meanwhile, David and Ruthy’s adulterous affair twists into the plot. David reiterates, “What does it matter, why should a country have only one woman, only one country, only one people?”
There is intensity, drama, conflict, and surprises for the reader disinterested in exploring the underpinnings. But the writing suffers as the novel becomes progressively a thriller. Mandelman overuses tags such as “rage”, “venom”, and “terror”. This is surprising, because in Talking to the Enemy the terror and rage was in what the characters did, and not upheld by the adjectives. Why, in The Debba, does Mandelman hammer on about “vibrating with rage”, “more savage than any rage”, “in a rage”, “black with venom”, “terror – abject deathly terror – grabbed me.”, or “as I sat there, sick with terror and longing”? The clichés become offensive to the aesthetic: “I wanted to tell him not to teach me my profession, but refrained”, “My heart seizing”, “I felt my teeth chatter”, “Swallowed my bile”, “heart leapt”, “skin crawl”, “My knees were weak”? In one instance Mandelman actually has his character say, “I saw no need to pussyfoot around”. A Palestinian character also says that they “stole our land, then our stories–”, the sort of platitude one expects to hear on CNN.
Mandelman is a good writer and his prose is capable of provocation. This is what I seek, more direct iconoclasm, more condemnation of how people kill one another for the sake of “old evil fictions”. But The Debba does not know whether to be ambitious or entertaining. Maybe my expectations were too high, because I longed to be riveted by the clout of Talking to the Enemy. Alas, The Debba is a different creature, though it would certainly be a rotten turn if people do not seek out Mandelman’s previous work.
Caleb Powell lived overseas for eight years in six countries, and wrote an English as a Second Language Guide, The World Is a Class. He now lives in Seattle with his family.
1283 w. September 1, 2010