Khirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar

12/02/11, The Times

People regularly talk of unputdownable books. Here is a book that could be classified as the perfectly putdownable: its subject matter is so painful, its execution so charged, so wildly beautiful, its moral ambivalence so incendiary and eloquent that reading it one has to put it down every few pages because, as Eliot reminded us, ‘human kind cannot bear very much reality’. Khirbet Khizeh, a milestone in Hebrew literature, has taken 60 years to be translated into English; it should be a moment for solemn celebration.

Written by S. Yizhar, nom de plume of Yizhar Smilansky, it is technically the first great work of Israeli literature: it was published in 1949, very shortly after the creation of the state of Israel. Yizhar was born in Rehovot in Palestine to a family of Russian pioneers in 1916. He was a member of the first Knesset, from 1949 to 1955, then again from 1956 to 1967, and served as an intelligence officer in the 1948 Arab-Israel War that followed so soon after the birth of the nation (and the first of its many wars). This war is the setting for the 100-page novel.

Khirbet Khizeh tells the story of the forceful expulsion of the inhabitants of the eponymous (fictional) Palestinian village by members of the Israeli Defence Force – it is narrated in the first person by one of its ranks – and its appropriation for imminent use by Jewish settlers. Even a bald summary like that is so loaded, touching perhaps the main nerve-centre of the intractable Israel-Palestine problem, that it is impossible to come to the book, more urgent than ever, with any degree of disinterest. The events are depressingly familiar now but must have had the shock of something relatively new in 1948: strafing the village with machine gun fire; entering its confines and rounding up everyone who had not escaped; bundling the women, children, the blind, the crippled left behind into trucks and depositing them far away from their homes and land.

What distinguishes this catalogue of outrages is the gradual way the narrator’s conscience militates against his complicity and participation, from its slow beginnings to the sudden descent of thunder in the word ‘exile’ when he realises that what they are doing to the Arabs is exactly what the Jews have been at the receiving end of for centuries. ‘This was exile. … I had never been in the Diaspora – I said to myself – I had never known what it was like … but [it was] our nation’s protest to the world: exile! It had entered me, apparently, with my mother’s milk. What, in fact, had we perpetrated here today?’

Singular too is the way this tale of moral cloudiness is delivered: the mighty rush of its prose, with its creative syntax, its long, fibrous sentences, its combination of impassioned, unbridled lyricism and colloquial speech, is exhilarating in effect. Yizhar is also a poet of the Middle Eastern landscape. The contrast between the beauty of the land, at once arid and lush, evoked in prose of beautiful exactitude, and its inherently contested status, creates for a tense, tragic friction. In his heartfelt and illuminating afterword to the book, David Shulman analyses the way its language cleaves to the Hebrew of the Old Testament, creating not only compacted layers of meaning but also a sizeable charge of surprise and menace, the allusions ‘going off like hand grenades in the midst of the meandering, stream-of-consciousness syntax’. How often can you say about a harrowing, unquiet book that it makes you wrestle with your soul?