Lying and Truth-Telling: New Israeli Fiction

April 2, 2020 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

Even people who think of themselves as essentially good and moral can become enmeshed in lies and deceit. That is one of the themes of Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s perceptive psychological novel, The Liar.  By contrast, in the comedy-drama And the Bride Closed the Door by Ronit Matalon, the issue is not out-and-out lying, but the suppression of a truth that is too painful to express. Both of these fine Israeli novels, newly available in English translation, are in our library.

The Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

This novel is full of characters who lie, but the primary liar is Nofar, a shy, awkward teenager. Norfar is filling orders in a Tel Aviv ice cream parlor when a customer who is having a bad day viciously insults her. Sobbing, Nofar runs from the store into an alley. The customer, Avishai Milner, a fading celebrity singer, chases her and continues his verbal abuse, grabbing her hand. Hearing Nofar’s screams, neighbors and police rush to the scene, and all assume that Milner has sexually assaulted Nofar, an assumption she is too upset to correct.

Overnight Nofar becomes a heroine of Israel’s #MeToo movement – interviewed on TV and radio, invited to the President’s residence, and showered with gifts of clothing and jewelry from fashion companies. Having long felt unseen and unappreciated, Nofar now basks in the limelight, relishing the public attention and admiration. Meanwhile, Milner becomes a pariah and faces trial for attempted rape. Nofar struggles with her conscience, wanting to tell the truth, but fearing angry denunciations and ridicule.

On a school trip to Polish concentration camps, Nofar meets Raymonde, an elderly woman who is pretending to be a Holocaust survivor. Raymonde impulsively took the place of her deceased friend Rivka (an actual Holocaust survivor) on the trip. Raymonde presents the students with emotional testimony that weaves together Rivka’s Holocaust stories with Raymonde’s own painful experience as a Mizrahi immigrant in an Israeli transit camp, suffering that Israel never acknowledged. Ironically, it is to Raymonde that Nofar chooses to confide her guilty secret. A psychologist as well as a novelist, Gundar-Goshen brings a nuanced understanding of human behavior to Nofar, Raymonde, and other characters who lie in this thought-provoking novel.

And the Bride Closed the Door by Ronit Matalon

On the morning of her wedding, Margie locks herself in the bedroom and declares that she is not getting married. She refuses to elaborate further, sending her family into a panic. What to tell the caterer who keeps calling? What about the 500 guests? The bewildered bridegroom, Matti, plants himself by the locked door, trying to coax Margie to come out or at least explain herself. In a hilarious development, Matti’s mom summons a specialist – a psychologist from a 24/7 emergency service called “Regretful Brides.” As the story unfolds, we learn more about the couple – Matti is Ashkenazi while Margie is from a Mizrahi family that is still mourning the disappearance of Margie’s younger sister ten years ago. Do these factors play into Margie’s seemingly inexplicable decision? Why is it so difficult for her to speak the truth?

This book earned Matalon Israel’s prestigious Brenner Prize, but, tragically, before the award ceremony, she died of cancer at age 58. Matalon’s acceptance speech, written in advance, included this poignant observation: “There is something sad yet a little bit funny in the fact that I, just like my locked-in-bride, am not attending this ‘wedding.’ But I hope it is clear that – just like in the novel – absence is sometimes as significant as presence…”