Gilad Atzmon is an exile, a Jewish refugee, compelled to flee his homeland for friendlier terrain. He emigrated not from Europe or the American South, but from Israel itself. That’s what compulsory service in the Israeli military can do: turn you into a martyr, a killer or a refusenik.
A couple of years in the Israeli army was enough to open Atzmon’s eyes to the ongoing tragedy of the Occupation and also to Israel’s steady transformation into a militarized state controlled by coterie of religious extremists. So Atzmon left a confirmed anti-Zionist. He ended up in London, where he has flourished, as a leading writer on the plight of the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation. Last year Atzmon became a British citizen, which he tells me is “not something to be proud of in the age of Blair.”
Atzmon is also one of the most gifted jazz musicians in Europe, making his mark first in Ian Dury’s band The Blockheads. But his recent recordings with his own band, Orient House Ensemble, are exquisite. His new cd, Exile, is a rich and demanding blend of post-bop jazz livened with a Middle Eastern flavor, where Atzmon’s soprano sax blends with the eerie keening of the gifted Palestinian singer Reem Kelani. The result is reminiscent of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and multi-ethnic musical excursions of Yusef Lateef: in other words, challenging and innovative jazz riding on top of a radical political consciousness. The album is dedicated to the Palestinian people and their right to return to their homeland.
Gunther Wunker, the central character in his scabrous first novel, A Guide to the Perplexed, is a lot like Atzmon, although he follows a symbolic different itinerary: he evacuates Israel for Germany, “the answer to all my needseverything my homeland aspired to be but never was”. The diaspora running in reverse.
A Guide to the Perplexed is a vividly written satire, infused with a ribald sense of humor and an unsparing critique of the incendiary political cauldron of the Mideast. The novel is a heady mix of Rothian sex romps, ruminations on the nature of identity, and bizarre escapades through the tangled nature of political and military bureaucracies that are worthy of Joseph Heller.
The story, which takes the form a journal written by the aging and perhaps slightly doughty Gunther, is powered by a narrative voice as cocky, relentless and fractured as a Charlie Parker solo.
The novel opens in the year 2052. Israel has been defunct for 40 years, replaced by a Palestinian state striving for the kind of assimilated population Israel violently resisted. German historians at the Institution for the Documentation of Zion discover a memoir written by Wunker (named by his Jewish grandfather after a German rocket engineer), detailing his alienation from Israel and rise to fame as a “peepologist,” a kind of professional voyeur.
At one level, of course, the Gunther is simply a connoisseur of peep shows and there are plenty of sexual escapades to move things along in this novel. Gunther develops a particular fascination for German women because “they don’t compromise, they never give up on their libido.” He finds that German women are drawn to him, not because of any sexual mystique on his part, but simply because his family “survived the ovens.”
But Dr. Peep is also an outsider, capable of peering back on his homeland through an exile’s peephole in “the ramshackle wall [Israel built] to keep at bay the dark reality materializing before their eyes.”
Gunther titles his manuscript, A Guide to the Perplexed: the perplexed being “the unthinking Chosen” who “cling to clods of earth that don’t belong to them.” He is reared on the thanatic fantasies of Israeli militarism “dedicated to heroic death on the battlefield”. Naturally, young Gunther is obsessed with the Israeli military and developed “a powerful urge to die in Israeli war”. The point is well made: Israeli youth are conditioned to embrace patriotic death with the same enthusiasm as a suicide bomber from Hamas. In the Zionist state, “dying on the altar of history” is promoted as the height of patriotic achievement. Israeli wives, Wunker observes, are selected on their suitability as potential widows, whose main role is to “perpetuate the memory of slain soldiers.”
But a few days in the “absurd, strident, dictatorial morass of the Army” are all it takes for Wunker to realize that he is “the most scared-shitless coward on Earth.” He sees his best friend, Alberto, dissolve into recon unit called the forgetting squad, a group of “elite amnesiacs.” When Alberto is killed, even his commanding officer can’t remember why or even how he died.
This is the Catch-22 logic of life in the Israeli National Service: in order to survive you must forget why you are there. “The army was perceived as such an absurd organization that as a means of forging within it an imaginative, critical, and creative element, men had to be trained in anti-military thinking to the point of revolutionary stupidity.”
At a loss to get out, he finally shoots himself in the foot during a battle, but his yelps of pain are mistaken by his fellow soldiers as a cry to attack. Naturally, he becomes a national hero, especially to Israeli “women of the Left, who have a poetic compassion for war causalities: it makes them horny as hell.”
So Gunther rejects the Army for a “priapic campaign for peace.” It is as a sexual outsider that he first begins to “identify with the plight of the Palestinian people.” Eventually, Gunther achieves a level of international fame as a peepologist. He even becomes something of a pop political advisor and dispenses advice to Clinton in his time of trauma. “Bill my old friend,” Gunther counsels the priapic prez. “Go on sliding cigars up arseholes. Without knowing it you have acquired a permanent place in the mythology of sexual relations. We understand where you’re at and we identify with your needs.” Sydney Blumenthal couldn’t have put it any more succinctly.
Like Norman Finkelstein, Atzmon abhors the ways in which the Holocaust is highjacked for nefarious political purposes. The novel excoriates the commercialization of the Holocaust, suggesting that such uses amount to a trivialization of one of history’s greatest horrors. Atzmon also argues that the Holocaust is invoked as a kind of reflexive propaganda designed to shield the Zionist state from responsibility for any transgression against Palestinians. Early in the novel, Gunther’s grandfather warns him that “There no business like Shoah business.”
Wunker comes to see Israel as a death obsessed culture, populated by “bereavement freaks” and “professional victims”, where the pain of the Palestinians is seen as “an economic asset” and the “death business is a national sport.” Every military victory, Wunker comes to conclude, is in fact a defeat, leading the Zionist state toward the terminal fulfillment of the national myth of Masada.
Atzmon’s novel then serves as a final wake-up call to other Israeli intellectuals who must come to terms with being aliens in another people’s land. The stakes are incredibly high and the unsettling subject matter could’ve made for a very hard and somber reading experience. But Atzmon writes with verve and wit. It’s a deliriously exhilerating read. Like the best satire and the most profound jazz, A Guide to the Perplexed is painful, but it goes down easy.
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature (Common Courage Press) and coeditor, with Alexander Cockburn, of The Politics of Anti-Semitism (AK Press). Both books will be published in October.