Nominated this year for Canada's prestigious Giller Prize, Avner Mandelman's novel The Debba is a web of contradictions. A tight thriller about messy relationships and an unresolved past, it's the story of David Starkman, an Israeli who's emigrated to Canada, renounced his Israeli citizenship and tried to leave his former life behind. But it's all brought back in a flash when his father is found murdered in his Jerusalem shoe shop and David must return to Israel to confront his, and his father's demons.
First, he must deal with the fact of his father's death and murder; compelled to solve the murder and convinced that it's tied to his father's past in the Israeli army and his relationship with an enigmatic figure known as "the Debba," an Arab hero who disappeared after David's father captures him, David immerses himself in his father's story. In folk lore, a debba is a mythical hyena who can turn into a man; it's also the title of a play David's father has written and which he insists in his will David must produce in order to inherit. The play has only been performed once before, when it caused a near-riot, and David must endure physical threats, the anger of his friends and even the opposition of the police and military to put the play on.
His return to Israel also puts him in the sphere of Ruthie, the woman he left behind (and his best friend's fiancée)- and their passion is reignited with animal ferocity. David also must uncover secret after secret about his father, his father's work and the mysterious Debba himself. In the end David has to ask himself searing questions about his identity and his future. But there is a lot standing in his way- powerful forces that want him to leave the past alone.
Politically The Debba does not take sides but rather forces the reader to ask questions and re-examine his or her own beliefs. I found the book's politics fascinating and complex. Other themes treated in the book include assimilation and Jewish identity and the meaning of inheritance. Mandelman's writing throughout is brisk and punchy. Israel is presented as a chaotic landscape where human behavior operates at a basic animal level. Nobody simply talks; people hiss and snarl and spit, and love is something brutish and wild. Literature and poetry can bring people together in unexpected ways in this hostile universe, and hide a lifetime's worth of secrets.
I found The Debba to be an irresistible literary pageturner and I'd recommend it to readers interested in Israel and contemporary Jewish writing that doesn't offer easy answers or pat reassurances. It's not a book for everyone but I think if you do decide to give it a go, it'll draw you in and keep you reading right till the end.
Come back tomorrow for an interview with The Debba author Avner Mandelman.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.
Posts in Other Press Week:
- Publisher Spotlight on Other Press: Introduction,
- Sunday: Interview with Publisher Judith Gurewich,
- Monday: Review of The Wrong Blood, by Manuel de Lope,
- Tuesday: Review of The Debba, by Avner Mandelman,
- Wednesday: Interview with Avner Mandelman,
- Thursday: Review of By Fire, By Water, by Mitchell James Kaplan.
- Friday: Interview with Mitchell James Kaplan