Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is a psychologist and her deep insight into human nature infuses every page of her second novel to be translated into English. At her recent Edinburgh Book Festival event she made the following points:
a) We each have more than one personality. Our lives do not follow a single arc.
b) We spend a lot of time hiding our true nature. We make ourselves attractive so that others do not see the real person beneath.
c) We often choose not to see what is right in front of us.
The drama involving Eitan, his wife, and an Ethiopian illegal immigrant, Sirkit is designed to show how this plays out in life.
Eitan Green is a neurosurgeon. He lives with his wife, Liat, and his two young sons in Beersheba. They are happy despite his posting to a dusty, southern outback being a kind of demotion, a punishment for causing waves in his previous post in Jerusalem. Yet Eitan’s life and all his assumptions about himself are changed in an instant.
He’s thinking that the moon is the most beautiful he has ever seen when he hits the man.
What is Eitan going to do? The doctor in him forces him out of the car. The doctor in him ascertains that the man, an illegal Ethiopian immigrant, is beyond help. The man in him realises that reporting the accident could lead to the loss of his family and career. Also that there are no witnesses. So, surprising the honest Eitan in himself (see a) above), he drives off.
The following day, with Eitan feeling no guilt, there is a knock at the door.
The woman at the door was tall, thin and very beautiful, but Eitan didn’t notice any of those details. Two others captured his full attention: she was Eritrean and she was holding his wallet in her hand.
And it is at that moment that Eitan’s universe tilts on its axis because the woman, Sirkit, holds more than the wallet, which Eitan dropped when examining the dying man. She holds, for the first time in her life, absolute power. The lion, the predator within her, has been awoken and she is on the prowl. What does she want? Not money. She wants Eitan to establish an illegal field hospital for the multitude of sick Eritrean immigrants and for him to treat them, for free, whenever he is not working at the hospital. However, don’t believe that Sirkit is motivated by altruism. It takes a while for her motives to be revealed. Bear in mind point b) above.
Which leaves us with point c) and Liat, Eitan’s wife, is the prime example of this. She is a detective and ironically, tasked with finding the hit and run driver. While the rest of the force is happy to sweep it under the carpet (it’s just another illegal immigrant), Liat is not. Yet when faced with Eitan’s ever-increasing absences, his deteriorating appearance, and the breakdown in their up-till-now model communications, she is not prepared to ask the questions that need asking – at least not until the point of almost no return.
The foregoing basically scratches the surface of the psychological drama at the heart of Waking Lions. The relationship between Sirkit and Eitan, blackmailer and blackmailee, isn’t confined to hatred. Gradually the muscles of hatred grow tired said Ayelet Gunden-Goshar. Which leads to more complications for Eitan. His involvement makes him aware of the Etritreans and their plight for the first time. He begins to feel empathy for them, which means he does not walk away when circumstances lead to the balance of power shifting between Sirkit and himself.
At times the relationship between Sirkit and Eitan feels like a deadly embrace. There needs to be a catalyst to break it. And that is provided by the fact that Eitan not only killed an illegal immigrant but also a drug-mule. Not only does this provide the acceleration to the thrillery climax, it gives Gunden-Goshar opportunity to investigate the stratified nature of contemporary society in Israel. At the bottom the illegal, and for the most part invisible Etritreans, who find they have not walked to a promised land. Above them – just – the Bedouins, reduced to making a living by providing tourist shows. And then the Jews: the Arab Jews who are discriminated agrainst by the European Jews.
Such an informative and surprising novel with lots of content in its 409 pages. I did feel a little drag around the half-way point, but, I suppose this reflects the situation Eitan was in at this point – there was no light at the end of the tunnel for him. It may also have been the efffect of reading the novel in snatches, as I travelled back and forth to Edinburgh. Regardless I’m glad I pushed on through. I was well rewarded for my efforts.