Khirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar trans. Nicholas De Lange and Yaacob Dweck (Ibis Editions, Apr. 2008; Granta, Feb. 2011; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Dec. 2014) Reviewed by Adriana X. Jacobs

Khirbet Khizeh
by S. Yizhar
trans. Nicholas De Lange and Yaacob Dweck
(Ibis Editions, Apr. 2008; Granta, Feb. 2011; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Dec. 2014)

Reviewed by Adriana X. Jacobs

At the end of S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh, the protagonist, an Israeli soldier, surveys the aftermath of the expulsion of an Arab village, counting the trucks departing with its former residents, who leave empty handed.  He notes the presence of white plumes of smoke in the village, coming from materials that refuse to burn out.  In this moment, he asks himself a question that remains as unresolved for the book’s readers in 2015 as it did in 1949, the year of its publication: “And how does it end?” A landmark text of Israeli literature, Yizhar’s Hebrew novella is narrated from the point of view of this unnamed soldier who begins to question the morality of the mission, asking himself how the Jews, a people who have suffered exile, could cause the exile of another people. Though Khirbet Khizeh is an apocryphal name, the village is hardly fictional; rather, it is like many villages in that period whose residents were forced to find their homes elsewhere, put into exile like the ancestors of the Jewish soldiers who are forcing them out. Translated by Nicholas De Lange, who is well-known to English readers of Israeli literature as Amos Oz’s translator, and Yaacob Dweck, this English translation now (re)appears in the long aftermath of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, and in a year when Israel-U.S. relations have been acutely strained, in part over disagreements concerning continued settlement expansion in the West Bank and Iran’s nuclear capabilities and the potential threat this poses to Israel.

Khirbet Khizeh was published only a few months after the 1948 war, so its first readers would have related to its plot as part of the active present. In this otherwise compact story, Yizhar turns the tedium of war into a thematic concern and a narrative mode. In the first pages, our protagonist questions how best to begin this story, creating a delay that parallels the long wait of the soldiers, arguably for the duration of the entire text:

We took our positions, set up the machine gun, and were ready to start. And when the one who was bent over his equipment listening and speaking into the wireless receiver in a ceremonial singsong informed us that there was still a wait until zero hour, we each sought and found a dry place to sit or stretch out and wait quietly for things to begin.

No one knows how to wait like soldiers. There is no time or place that soldiers are not waiting and waiting. Waiting in dug-in positions on the high ground, waiting for an attack, waiting to move on, waiting in a cease-fire; there is the ruthlessly long waiting, the nervous anxious waiting, and there is also the tedious waiting, that consumes and burns everything without fire or smoke or purpose or anything. You find yourself a place, you lie down on it, and you wait. Where have we not lain down?

The protagonist has learned to discern the various shades and nuances of waiting from days spent in states of suspension and anticipation. Waiting, he tells us, is not exclusively inert or passive, but rather active and anxious. It can be boring, but even this boredom, Yizhar explains, is me’upash, moldy, which De Lange and Dweck translate as “fetid,” thereby expanding the semantic field to include not only rot and decay but also a breakdown of perspective (in English, fetid connects etymologically with fimus, dung, and fumus, smoke). This boredom demoralizes the soldiers, but it is also a state in which they are complicit. They are staking out villages “that had been conquered,” waiting day after day for flickers of activity. Surrounded by decaying gardens, the stench of food rotting on abandoned tables, and animal carcasses, the soldiers begin to crave impatiently for “what would happen. Or for anything,” while at the same time understanding that these signs of life, when they manifest, need to be erased.

At the time that Yizhar wrote Khirbet Khizeh, the vernacularization of Hebrew had been underway for several decades, but today’s readers of Hebrew may find Yizhar’s dialogue charmingly outmoded and may require some help navigating his dense and inventive intertextuality, which draws heavily from the Hebrew Bible.  At the same time, Yizhar’s text documents how rapidly the language absorbed and created words that allowed its speakers to narrate modern life and modern warfare. De Lange and Dweck offer wonderful solutions to Yizhar’s interweaving of biblical language and text, and the final line of the passage quoted above is one example. The question “where have we not lain down?” reads like a line of prayer in the English, an association sparked by the choice of “lain.” In this passage, the line leaves the impression that the soldiers have covered a lot of ground, but also alludes to the long history of Jewish exile. The waiting of the soldiers isn’t just a way to plot the novel; it also has a history. In fact, the soldiers’ waiting is a continuation of a history of waiting to return to the Jewish homeland. In this context, their waiting carries the anticipation of bringing this history to a close and thereby entering into a new historical time. At the threshold of an almost empty Arab village, the wait seems to be reaching an end, and its closure will allow a new narrative to be written without interruption, distraction or blemish. This is what this wait, at least initially, promises the soldiers—but it is also part of Yizhar’s narrative strategy. By delaying the beginning, arguably for the entire novel, Yizhar does not allow this new narrative—a narrative of sovereignty—to take hold. The soldiers remain in a state of waiting that slowly ruins them, as it does the village, all the villages, that they have conquered. This ruin is in the story’s very title, an amalgamation of the Arabic khirbet (“a ruin of”) and the Hebraized Khizah (in Arabic it would be pronounced Khizeh, which the English translation reinstates). The soldiers have become the walking dead, covered in fleas like the dog carcasses rotting beside them, but the text also shows signs of ruin and breakdown in its meandering plot (if this word even applies), sharp transitions, puzzling syntax. Yizhar’s prose requires a reader to reassemble sentence order, another way that the distance between reader and speaker collapses, but the stream-of-conscious effects that he employs also lull a reader into a kind of trance and then, suddenly, as for the soldiers, a sudden movement brings the reader back into the text and scrambling to figure out how they got there. In these moments, rereading feels very much synonymous with retracing and rewriting.

Republication also belongs to this list. This is not the first, or second, time that this work has appeared in English translation, or in this particular translation. FSG’s publication, in fact, marks the third time that De Lange and Dweck’s translation of Khirbet Khizeh has been published in English. This fact alone is astounding when we consider the challenges of finding a market—especially among the publishing major leagues—supportive of English translations of Israeli literature (not to speak of translation in general). Reissuing translations of Israeli literature is almost unheard of, so FSG’s decision to recirculate Khirbet Khizeh says something not only about the novella’s relevance but also about the viability of De Lange and Dweck’s translation. Retranslations are often justified as opportunities for revision and reframing, to update the language of translation to bring it closer to a contemporary idiom, to capitalize on the marketability of a particular translator (e.g., Edith Grossman, Pevear and Volokhonsky), or simply because a book sells, and sells well, in multiple translations. In this past year alone, two retranslations of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina have hit the market. Reissuing Khirbet Kizheh in De Lange and Dweck’s translation, which has been out of print for some time, then, constitutes an act of reanimation.

Ibis Editions, a Jerusalem-based press, first published De Lange and Dweck’s translation of Khirbet Khizeh in 2008, with an afterword (also included in the FSG reissue) by David Shulman, a US-born Indologist, peace activist and Hebrew University professor. Founded in 1998 by Peter Cole and Adina Hoffman, Ibis Editions was committed to “drawing together a group of writers and translators whom both politics and market-forces would otherwise keep far apart, or out of print altogether.” Though no longer in operation, Ibis’s backlist reveals how the press resisted the national frame, “tribalism and fence-building” and rather positioned Hebrew literature in the Levant, a shifting cross-cultural and multilingual geography that has historically encompassed the cultures of the Mediterranean and Near East. In the Israeli context, particularly in the early years of statehood, Levantinism—levantiniut—represented a dangerous intermixing of East and West and a threat to national (Ashkenazi) authenticity. By publishing English translations of texts originally written in Arabic, Hebrew, French, Greek, Ladino, German, and English, Ibis Editions challenged the still-entrenched relation of language and national identity; instead, most of its writers moved, in their own lives, between many homes and homelands and languages. The “Levant” page of the still-live Ibis Editions website consists solely of a long quote attributed to the Egyptian-Jewish writer Jacqueline Kahanoff, who describes the Levant as “a prism whose various facets are joined by the sharp edge of differences” (Kahanoff, From East the Sun). The inclusion of Hebrew writers like Avraham Ben-Yitzhak, Harold Schimmel, Esther Raab and S. Yizhar provocatively and productively locates their work in an expansive geography with Jewish and non-Jewish writers of other languages, whose texts and lives cross paths in this “geography of the imagination.”

Yizhar, né Yizhar Smilansky likewise straddled boundaries of location and history. Born in 1916 in Ottoman Palestine to a family of writers (his great uncle was Moshe Smilansky, a prominent Hebrew writer and proponent of Jewish-Arab coexistence), Yizhar began publishing short stories in the late 1930s. The publication of Khirbet Khizeh coincided with the first anniversary of the State of Israel. Though contemporary readers may use this date in order to position the novella as a post-1948 text, the scholar Shaul Setter argues in his incisive and poetic essay, “The Time that Returns,” that Yizhar’s story has to be located in “1948-time.” In other words, while Khirbet Khizeh is often read in a post-1948 Israeli context, as a commentary on the early history of Israeli statehood, the text not only contests and calls into question the project of settlement, particularly the means by which it is accomplished, but also articulates “a refusal of the time of state sovereignty” by holding back any narrative resolution or closure. And yet, the Israeli establishment regarded Khirbet Khizeh as a classic text of Israeli literature. In 1964, the Ministry of Education approved its inclusion in the list of suggested readings for the high school bagrut (Israeli matriculation) exam. By then, S. Yizhar himself was an active participant in the Israeli political apparatus, serving as a member of Knesset nearly uninterruptedly from 1949 to 1967.

S. Yizhar’s Hebrew was, as David Schulman describes in his afterword, “a vanished language, this experimental mélange of wild, lucid lyricism, often dark and menacing, pointed biblical allusions that go off like hand grenades.” “Exile” is such a grenade, a word handed back and forth between the soldiers and the villagers, between Jews and Arabs, between Israelis and Palestinians. In the Hebrew text, Yizhar refers to the vehicles that take the villagers away from their homes as kronot—which also applies to railcars (sing. karon)—thereby drawing an explicit relation between this expulsion and the Holocaust. This relation is suggested in several places in the translation, but De Lange and Dweck’s decision to render kronot ha-golah as “trucks of exile” acknowledges the relation between these narratives (in British English, that is De Lange’s English, “truck” can refer to a freight car) but the word “truck” also applies to other vehicles of transport, thereby underscoring how “exile” is carried, transferred and translated between these two cultures. Metaphors are vehicles, and in these “trucks of exile” memories of home remain active, persistent, and in a constant state of translation.

In Yehuda Amichai’s poem “Shlom bar,” “Wildpeace,” the speaker reflects on the legacy of violence and conflict that he is passing down to his son, who “plays with a toy gun that knows / how to open and close its eyes and say Mama” (translated by Chana Bloch). The speaker compares this exchange to a relay race, where “the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation / to the next.” It’s a seamless transaction, but Amichai also implies that there is no closure in sight, “the baton never falls.” Amichai read this poem at the 1994 award ceremony for the Nobel Prize, at the invitation of Yitzhak Rabin, then Prime Minister of Israel, who shared that year’s prize with then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Chairman of the PLO Yasser Arafat. It felt for a time that the signing of the Oslo Accords was offered a way out of the conflict but Rabin’s assassination later that year diminished this expectation. Amichai’s poem is not quite hopeful. Its speaker is skeptical of official pronouncements of peace, suggesting, instead, that maybe even a peace as light and lazy as foam could unsettle the baton. Bar is “field” in Hebrew but also “son” in Aramaic, underscoring a relation between place and inheritance that is charged and vexed in the Israeli context. In Yizhar’s story, the soldiers are too young to be fathers, but one day they will be and their legacy will be “our very own Khirbet Khizah.”* At first, the protagonist imagines how the new residents will rebuild this space, and with each synagogue, school, and home, erase the former Khirbet Khizeh from the map, pushing it into a space beyond memory and imagination. Unsettling this vision is the sight of a seven-year-old child, and the understanding that “something was happening in the heart of the boy, something that, when he grew up, could only become a viper inside him.” There is no way out of this conflict—Yizhar refuses to write the exit—instead the soldier and boy co-exist in a toxic ecosystem.

The earliest translation of Khirbet Khizeh, into any language, appears to be an Arabic translation by Ibrahim al-Bahrawi, which was published in Egypt in the early 1970s.  It later was translated again into Arabic by the Palestinian writer Tawfik Fayyad. But what is certain is that Khirbet Khizeh is the most widely translated of Yizhar’s tales—it has appeared in German, Italian, Spanish, French, Norwegian, Greek, Swedish, Dutch, Spanish, and English—but nearly all these translations were published in the past decade. Translation has brought Khirbet Khizeh into varied cultural, linguistic, and historical contexts, and tracing these receptions not only reveals the prismatic relations that it has made outside of Israel and Hebrew, but also illuminates how translation, particularly into English, has encouraged Israeli readers to revisit and reevaluate the text. The 2008 publication by Ibis Editions received a fair amount of press, including a review in Haaretz by Noah Efron, who voiced the concern that this translation would become “Exhibit A in the case against Israel” but also acknowledged that the story “retains an immediacy that lends it straight-for-today’s-front-page-relevance.” This feeling of immediacy, of a story set in the continuous present, has something to do with the way the story leaves, rather than ends, on an inquiry that remains open and unanswered. The brutally compact and almost unpronounceable haketsa’akata, which De Lange and Dweck translate as “whether all was according to the cry,” marks the final word of the story.  This “linguistic infiltration,” to quote Shulman, is taken from Genesis 18:20-21, where God, addressing Abraham, questions whether the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is commensurate with its wickedness.

I will go down now,” he says, “and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know” (King James Version). By placing it at the end of the story, the cry extends, unanswered and unresolved, beyond the text, to trouble us with its implications in the present. The 2011 publication by Granta Books opened new channels for its circulation, and now with its FSG reissue, there is yet another opportunity for this translation to carry the cry of Khirbet Khizeh to a place where it may reach us.

 

* The Hebrew title is often transliterated as Hirbet Hizah, which reflects a Hebrew pronunciation, whereas the English title Khirbet Khizeh reclaims the Arabic pronunciation. I alter De Lange and Dweck’s transliteration here in order to emphasize how the soldiers already imagine this Arab village as a Jewish home.

 

Adriana X. Jacobs is the Cowley Lecturer in Modern Hebrew Literature at the University of Oxford and specializes in modern Hebrew and Israeli poetry and translation.