Op Art

Joshua Cohen

  • Cut Throat Dog by Joshua Sobol, translated by Dalya Bilu
    Melville House, 270 pp, £10.99, November 2010, ISBN 978 1 935554 21 9

Worst. Movie. Ever. A woman visits a private detective and asks him to find her lost virginity. Or, let’s say, a time bomb has been planted in Midtown New York; our hero has to defuse it, but in his search discovers that the bomb is merely a metaphor symbolising his own fuming self. In the final scene, he jumps into the Hudson and drowns; the city is saved.

Metaphysics, if it can be defined at all, is highbrow gimmickry, while genre literature was until recently the lowest of the low. For writers they represent two opposing drives: the desire to be taken seriously and the desire to be popular, and so it is no surprise that one has served as a vehicle for the other since the American 19th century. English-language detective fiction began with Poe’s pulpy stories of Auguste Dupin, and was definitively sanctified 50 years later by Chesterton, who assimilated the theological to the criminal in the tales of Father Brown. ‘Chesterton always performs the tour de force of proposing a supernatural explanation [for a crime] and then replacing it, losing nothing, with another one from this world,’ wrote Borges, another master of otherworldly propositions, who once related Zeno’s Paradox to chase scenes in the movies.

It’s telling that American detective and thriller fiction – ‘American’ because the genre’s commercial conventions were perfected in the US – finds its most cerebral innovators abroad: Georges Simenon (Belgium), Leonardo Sciascia (Italy), Bernhard Schlink (Germany). What must be its mandarin masterpiece was written in French in 1969: Georges Perec’s La Disparition is a lipogram, from the Greek lipogrammatos (‘missing symbol’), denoting a text that excludes one or more letters. The letter ‘e’, which doesn’t appear once in its 300 pages, is understood to represent European Jewry, disappeared for ever. In a rhyming set of disappearances, the book’s Jewish protagonist, Anton Voyl (or Vowl in English translation), has gone missing; and as the name Georges Perec contains a surfeit of ‘e’s, the author has effectively written himself out of his book. Gilbert Adair’s translation, A Void, is a virtuosic transposition of virtuosity:

With a loud and languorous sigh Vowl sits up, stuffs a pillow at his back, draws his quilt up around his chin, picks up his whodunit and idly scans a paragraph or two; but, judging its plot impossibly difficult to follow in his condition, its vocabulary too whimsically multisyllabic for comfort, throws it away in disgust.

Perec’s father, born in Poland, was killed fighting for his adopted France in the Second World War; his mother was murdered, probably at Auschwitz; Perec himself – whose subject was always really the Holocaust, even when he seemed merely to be executing kabbalistic permutations of character and situation – survived by hiding in a Catholic boarding school.

Joshua Sobol (his given name is often Hebraicised in English as Yehoshuah), born in 1939 in Mandate Tel Aviv, is similarly preoccupied with both genocide and formal experimentation. Cut Throat Dog is his first novel to be translated, though not his first translated work: Ghetto, first staged in 1984, is one of the most widely performed and most praised plays about the Holocaust – in Europe, that is. In New York it was received as an exploitative disaster. Part of a trilogy (the following two plays are Adam and Underground), Ghetto actually presents several plays within a play, as it depicts the aspirations and liquidation of the Yiddish theatre that flourished in the Vilna Ghetto. Unfortunately, what characterisation it offers is stereotypical Shoah Business: a socialist librarian, an unctuous businessman, the well-meaning Judenrat functionary, the aesthetically sensitive but murderous SS-Oberscharführer. Frank Rich’s New York Times review dropped the curtain with apt cruelty: ‘Ghetto is almost perverse in its ability to make the true nightmare of our century ring completely false.’

Not quite a radical (he isn’t Hanoch Levin, or Yitzhak Laor), Sobol has nonetheless courted political controversy. His play The Jerusalem Syndrome (1988) – the title refers to the malady that has tourists in Israel thinking they’re back in biblical days – incited protests throughout the country. Sobol’s allegory was strident but effective: the play equated contemporary IDF soldiers with second-century ad zealots whose insistence on religious principle precipitated the fall of the Kingdom of Judea. Recently, Sobol, who abandoned the stage for a while after The Jerusalem Syndrome, has spoken out against the West Bank settlements, refusing to have his plays put on there (though that’s merely a gesture, since the ultra-religious would have no interest in performing them anyway). After describing the settlements as a ‘cancer’ last year, he was stripped of his teaching post at the Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts, a religious film school in Jerusalem.

Cut Throat Dog, whose title is taken from The Merchant of Venice (‘You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,/And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,/And all for use of that which is mine own’), had a different title when it was published in Hebrew in 2001, Visky ze’b’seder (‘Whisky’s Fine’). The two titles are representative of the book’s double identity: it is part Shakespearean soliloquy on semitism, part gleeful exercise in trash. Hanina, a.k.a. Shakespeare, a.k.a. Shylock, a.k.a. Salek Rugashov, a.k.a. Hananiah ben Hezekiah ben Gruen (all the characters have multiple aliases) was once the star of a Mossad execution squad, many of whose members now run a trendy Israeli advertising agency. This sitcom set-up is a strange pill the reader has to swallow, not unlike the state-of-the-art pharmaceuticals the agency tries to market: ‘The new pill … increases not only the capacity, but also the desire of both sexes – and in addition to its amazing ability to lengthen the male member by three inches if taken for three months, it also has the ability to lengthen the duration of the sexual act and to shorten the recovery time between the orgasm and the new erection.’

In New York to pitch to a potential client, Shakespeare (let’s call him that for convenience) thinks he recognises a Syrian terrorist, Adonas, a.k.a. Adonis, a.k.a. Anton, a.k.a. Tino Rossi (thanks to his distinctive tenor voice), and tails him to an Irish pub on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Adonas, who killed Shakespeare’s teammate Jonas, was himself rumoured to have been killed in the Libyan desert. So the man in the pub may not be a jihadi at all: he may, in fact, be a pimp, since after a bizarre exchange he refers Shakespeare to his prostitute, Winnie, a.k.a. Melissa. Shakespeare runs off with her, mainly in the hope of discovering whether the man really is Adonas or if he, Shakespeare, is going insane. It is this distinction that provides the novel’s metaphysic: is our hero super-alert, or is he a paranoiac who suspects everyone of seeking to destroy the Jewish state?

That, along with the decline of Shakespeare’s marriage (to Mona, the ad agency’s director), comprises the book’s basic plot, which is complicated by an array of ingenious devices. Intercut with Shakespeare’s investigation are incidents from (William) Shakespeare’s plays: the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet is restaged as a commercial; Othello is rehearsed in the context of a friend’s betrayal (Yadanuga, a senior member of the squad, seduces Mona while Shakespeare’s away on a solo mission); A Midsummer Night’s Dream is re-enacted with a young waitress at a seafood restaurant. Shakespeare’s erudition invokes the tradition of the op with intellectual pretensions: from Sherlock Holmes’s scientific dabbling to Philip Marlowe, who played chess games against himself between assignments. Further trickery comes by way of alcohol: not the whisky that Shakespeare consumes (Bushmills at the low end, Lagavulin on a splurge), but the stuff served up by the Irish pub’s inept bartender, who, like so many bartenders in New York, is Israeli and a struggling screenwriter, and who occasionally overtakes the narrative to rewrite it into action sequences, essentially adapting the novel for the screen. He becomes the crass arbiter of narrative efficacy, so that when the novel digresses into the fates of Shakespeare’s parents, who were Holocaust survivors, the bartender steps in to remind the writer and reader to pick up the pace and avoid engaging with the past. This, he notes, is what Hollywood demands. And this, I’ll note, is what modern Israel has demanded too.

It’s difficult not to notice that this novel appears in English not long after one of Mossad’s most controversial (alleged) operations: last year’s assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, co-head of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s paramilitary wing, in his room at the luxury Al-Bustan Rotana hotel in Dubai. Nearly 30 people are currently suspected of complicity in the crime, having travelled to the Emirates on illegal passports from four European countries. After a thorough investigation the Dubai authorities formally accused Mossad of the hit, claiming they’d drugged and tortured al-Mabhouh before murdering him (he was apparently tortured by electric shock, suggesting there had been an interrogation). The case appeared to fizzle out after the police presented the Dubai head prosecutor with a request for the arrest of Binyamin Netanyahu and Meir Dagan, the chief of Mossad. This scandal shouldn’t have any bearing on a novel published ten years earlier featuring a Mossad team retired into yuppie respectability, but it does help show us what such a team looks like: undoubtedly, the Dubai assassination is the most visually documented operation in the history of espionage. No need to read WikiLeaks’s unexpurgated accounts of skulduggery or even the scrupulous novels of John le Carré: to see what a mission really looks like one only has to watch the Al-Bustan Rotana’s CCTV footage, released on the internet by the Dubai Government Media Office last spring.

This half-hour of footage is a gift to novelists who idealise the authentic. The men and women accused of the attacks aren’t right for the movie screen; they seem tired and bloated, older than Hollywood would allow. The suspect known as ‘Peter’ (an operative travelling under the name Peter Elvinger, ostensibly a French national), comes off as nerdy, nervous. The suspect known as ‘Kevin’ (Kevin Daveron, ‘Irish’) is a bland executive, a ‘suit’. ‘Gail’ (Gail Folliard, also ‘Irish’) resembles a peppy shopaholic, lugging her duty-free bags. The victim appears toting a shopping bag of his own as Gail and Kevin monitor the hall, wearing special walkie-talkies that look like sweatbands or wristwatches. Meanwhile the executioners – four men in ridiculous baseball caps – are waiting in his room, which they’d broken into earlier. When they’re finished, they all leave in the same elevator: four burly schlubs, pretty much the last word in conspicuous. One of them appears to be wearing a glove he wasn’t wearing earlier. By now it has become commonplace to say so, but the entire operation seems commonplace, banal. Watching this movie for just 30 seconds makes one want to watch a real movie, or even read a book. Surveillance footage is accurate, but because it looks so unlike the fictional version we’re used to, it seems inaccurate. It has no soundtrack and no dialogue, which drains the proceedings of psychological tension. Without words or music the viewer can’t know what the ‘characters’ – the assassins – are thinking; it is impossible to empathise with them, and even the victim is just a tedious waddler, a dark dumpy man back from the shops.

But the Dubai victim was a real person, allegedly a terrorist, whereas there’s no real victim in this novel, and the terrorism cuts both ways: Shakespeare stalks Adonas, who stalks Shakespeare in return. Adonas is forced to act as a terrorist, whether he used to be a real one or not, while Shakespeare, who’s constantly reminded of his deactivation, is compelled to give personal expression to his professional training: from state-sanctioned assassin, he’s become a recreational madman. It follows that in place of insight into a terrorist’s mind – what novel has given us that? – Sobol offers only representations of representations of terrorism, and he isn’t fussy about their origin, just as this New York/Israeli hybrid of a novel even-handedly appropriates both the Elizabethan and the romance dreck found in megamarts worldwide. In place of a plot, or what detectives call a ‘timeline’, Sobol prefers to foreground the archaeological strata of mystification that follow every operation. Indeed, perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this brief novel of debriefing is that it is structured like an inquest, with the corpus delicti – the murdered Jonas – buried in the distant past, while everywhere else we are deprived of causality: Shakespeare and Winnie fall in love before they have sex; Adonas and Shakespeare are ready to kill without having ascertained who they’re killing. That murderous impulse is forced on Adonas, but for Shakespeare it constitutes a moral responsibility – an echo of Shylock, who was initially charged with being unfaithful to goyish concepts of justice, before he was charged with being altogether too faithful.

Everyone who’s ever read a book or watched a film ‘based on a true story’ appreciates the fact that when reality is fictionalised, a loss of verisimilitude means an increase in entertainment. After all, it must be extremely tedious to shadow a person: nobody, not even a spy or assassin, wants to tail a mark through every hour of their day. It’s perverse, then, that Sobol’s book, for all its attempts to reinvent the genre, ends up like the Dubai footage, so detailed and many-angled that at times – in translation, at least – it is near incomprehensible. One wishes the Government of Dubai Media Office would step in and do for this novel what they did for their film: circle dramatis personae when they blur into frame, identify them with subtitles, timecode the events with a running digital clock. Ultimately what distinguishes worthwhile genre fiction is its language, and though it seems as if translating Sobol’s book should be easy – its short sentences and simple diction read very nicely in the original – perhaps the tradecraft and shoptalk have complicated the task. In any event the translation is not a success: ‘Hanina emerges into the city, where a wintry wind is raging, howling in the narrow passages quarried through it by the skyscrapers like tunnels in the bowels of a mountain’; Mona, driving an SUV, ‘leaves behind her a cacophony of hysterical hoots and curses, which only egg her on to give the hundred and fifty fire horses imprisoned under the hood their heads’. There are lapses like these every ten or so pages: Mossad was never this sloppy, not even in Dubai.