The Debba by Avner Mandelman (2010) Other Press (2010) 368 pp
If it weren’t for its inclusion on the Giller Prize longlist, early in my reading I would have abandoned The Debba. Somewhere on the internet, KevinfromCanada made an analogy between a falling tree and the development of one’s opinion of a book. At first, the tree may swivel in all directions, but once it starts to fall one way, it is very hard to right it and get it to fall in another. Early in this book, due to cumbersome prose (not the politics, which might have some readers throwing the book out the window), annoyance caused the tree to sway to the “dislike” side. After that, I kept picking out perceived flaws, the tree fell faster, and I think it’s fair to say that nothing came along with the muscle to maneuver the tree any other direction. The book has many strengths (and the last 100 pages are much better than any of the others), but on page after page the clumsy writing sucked out my will to explore the heart of the book.
The Debba begins in Toronto in 1977. After seven years of not speaking to his father, our narrator David Starkman gets a phone call informing him that his father, Isser, was murdered in his shop in Israel; the murderer — and many are positive that it was an Arab — is still at-large. The baseless assumption that his father was murdered by an Arab upsets David. In fact, when he left Israel he fled with a passionate distaste for it, and we get a sense that his efforts to alienate himself shattered the expectations of his parents, and maybe of his fellow countrymen:
Two months before, four years after arriving in Canada (sponsored by Uncle Yitzchak, against the violent objections of my father and my mother’s painful silence), I had become a Canadian citizen. A day after I falsely swore allegiance to the foreign monarch, I went to the Israeli Embassy on Bloor Street and asked to give up my Israeli citizenship.
The consul, a Mr. Iddo Ronen, was not amused. “David Starkman? The son of Isser?”
I didn’t answer. What was there to say?
“The Isser Starkman? From forty-eight?”
“Yes. So what?”
His mother died a few years earlier, and now his father is dead. David prepares to return to Israel to bury his father and then to leave it all behind once and for all, planning to return to Canada as quickly as possible and move on with his life with Jenny, his gentile girlfriend. He makes the trip, and almost immediately the dark dreams he had before he left Israel and before he met Jenny return to him. He’s miserable and curt to his friends and relatives whom he hasn’t seen in years. One of my pet peeves was how often David (or someone else) “hissed” something, or said something “in a tight voice,” or with a flaming face. We certainly get the idea that David is bitter. Fairly soon we find out it is because ten years earlier (a notorious year in Arab-Israeli relations) his “job was to do the necessary drek, ‘so the rest of the Jews can live cleanly.'”
Complicating his return now in 1977, his father’s will has a strange stipulation. If David wants his inheritance, within six weeks of his father’s death he must stage his father’s play The Debba. The play was performed only once, in 1946, not long before the United Nation’s partition of Palestine and creation of a Jewish state. The performance caused riots.
Despite this blip in his history, Isser became a national hero in 1948 when he is purported to have assassinated an Arab terrorist.
“But he was in the army,” I said. Her smell, a warm lemony musk, reached me from across the table; I felt my eyes begin to sting.
“So was your father,” Ruthy said, “once. He was what, in forty-eight? A major? Colonel?” Her face still reminded me of an apricot, soft and rounded and downy.
I said I didn’t know. It was true. I never bothered to learn what he did then. All I knew was that he had killed Abu Jalood, the notorious leader of the Jaloodi terrorist gang, the one whom the Arabs claimed could turn himself into a Debba.
Despite the family history, David wants nothing to do with this condition to his inheritance and calls Jenny to tell her he’ll be home soon:
Jenny said in a choked voice, “How long do you have if — if you want to — “
“Six weeks — but — ” I rasped, “there is now way in hell — “
“But your father, he asked you to do that? For him?”
Jenny’s father used to beat her, even rape her (that’s what she said), in that little village near Ottawa where she was born. That’s why she ran away from home at fifteen, like those other girls on Yonge Street. Yet when he was diagnosed with cancer six years later, she went to stay with him in the hospital for nearly a month, until his last moment. I couldn’t understand it.
I’m not sure if that interruption to explain Jenny’s character bothers anyone else. It bothered me, but perhaps it bothered me because that method of interrupting the narrative to explain something is used often in this book. Here is another example:
It was Amzaleg. What the hell was he doing here?
His scratched cruiser was parked parallel to the Toyota, and he stepped between the twin orange shirts and me, a policeman’s truncheon in his left hand. One shadow hissed, “Get the hell out of here, ya kaza policeman.” It was the voice of the same yeshiva boy who had been outside Gelber’s apartment.
Kaza is a derogatory term for Moroccan Jew. It refers to Casablanca, from where most arrived. Somehow it came to mean in Hebrew what “nigger” means in English.
I called at Amzaleg’s back, “It’s okay, Amnon, leave them to me.”
I admit, as annoying as that interruption was to me, I didn’t know what “kaza” meant, so I needed the information. But is there no better way to provide it? Also, I found “Amzaleg paused” right before the interjection by the narrator a clumsy structure.
Other tics bothered me more. Passages included to slow the pace often served merely to slow the pace, not to develop the story. Details meant to add texture mostly added fluff. And, perhaps the biggest annoyance to me, Mandelman over-explains even the simplest character motives and over-ensures the reader isn’t missing any subtleties in the narrative. I don’t know how many times David the narrator, not David the character, says some variation on “What the hell was this?” or “What the hell was that about,” as he does in the above passage (“What the hell was he doing here?”). Rather than bring an immediacy to the narrative, these passages threw me out of it. Worst of all, many chapters end with some wrap-up transition similar to one of these:
If I’d had any doubts before, I had none now. Everything revolved around my father’s play, and someone did not want me to stage it.
I stared at him for a long while. Was he really only after my father’s killer? Or was there something else?
Was this why Kagan had sent me to research the past? Did he really think the Debba’s legend would help me understand the play and make clear why my father had asked me to stage it?
All in all, I found the writing, syntactically and structurally, overdone.
And that is too bad. Underneath the prose is an interesting exploration of the creation of the Jewish state and the relations between Arabs and Israelis. I was particularly fascinated by the conception of the play The Debba before 1946, when Isser and his other writer friends wrote some influential political poetry (perhaps this was my attempt to channel Roberto Bolaño). Who actually wrote The Debba is, soon enough, an intriguing question — much more interesting than most of David’s life in 1977, which tended to dilute what, to me, was the heart of the story.
This book does come with some praise, so I’m happy to say that my niggles with this book are unobtrusive to others. In fact, Publishers Weekly said, “Sharp, biting prose distinguishes this first novel.” I disagree fully, as you see. I think it could have used a few more rounds of editing to polish it up, and I think one step in that polish would be to cut it down to what I think would be a fascinating novella of 120 pages or so.