Novel’s jour­ney to Is­rael dar­ingly blurs fact and fic­tion

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Sharon Chisvin

IN 1970, Amer­i­can gang­ster Meyer Lan­sky fled jus­tice of­fi­cials in the U.S. and sought refuge in Is­rael. As a Jew, Lan­sky as­sumed that he would be em­braced by Is­rael’s Law of Re­turn — leg­is­la­tion that grants Jewish im­mi­grants to Is­rael au­to­matic ci­ti­zen­ship. He was wrong. In 2000, Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Han­nah Groff trav­elled to Is­rael to in­ves­ti­gate and write about the mur­der of an Is­raeli poet. Al­though a Jew, Groff as­sumed that she would be un­af­fected by Is­rael’s al­lure, its his­tory and her­itage. She too was wrong. Lan­sky and Groff are two of the many per­son­al­i­ties who pop­u­late Amer­i­can au­thor Zachary Lazar’s new novel, I Pity the Poor Im­mi­grant. This novel, like Lazar’s award-win­ning ear­lier book, Sway, merges fic­tional people and events with real people and events to great lit­er­ary ef­fect. This ef­fect, how­ever, does not come eas­ily. This new book is both dif­fi­cult and de­mand­ing to read. It ma­ni­a­cally jumps back and forth in time and place, and from one idea to an­other. It in­tro­duces myr­iad char­ac­ters who seem to come and go on a whim, and con­tains dis­jointed snip­pets of mem­oir, po­etry and jour­nal­ism. And yet, it’s a bru­tally hon­est and beau­ti­fully writ­ten ac­count of the need to love, be loved and be­long. It is jour­nal­ist Han­nah Groff’s needs in par­tic­u­lar that take cen­tre stage in the nar­ra­tive. As the novel be­gins, Han­nah, a di­vorced, late-30s, New York-based writer, is re­search­ing a story, some­thing that she has done count­less times be­fore. But in this case, her re­search begets a per­sonal jour­ney, one that she did not ex­pect and that she is loath to em­brace. In time, the story she is re­search­ing be­comes a story about her­self. “A woman goes on a jour­ney — Jerusalem, Beth­le­hem, Tel Aviv, then back to New York,” Han­nah writes. “I thought I was cov­er­ing the mur­der of an Is­raeli poet named David Bellen, in­ves­ti­gat­ing a fairly straight­for­ward crime story. But it be­came a story that led else­where, a story that led every­where, a story I would have had no in­ter­est in if I hadn’t ac­ci­dently found my­self in­side it.” This dis­cov­ery opens old wounds and new pos­si­bil­i­ties for Han­nah. Al­though it twice takes her to Is­rael, it also takes her through the streets of New York, to the side of her es­tranged fa­ther, and to lunch with her for­mer He­brew school teacher, a Ber­gen-Belsen sur­vivor named Gila Konig. Gila, as it turns out, also hap­pens to be a for­mer girl­friend of Han­nah’s fa­ther, a for­mer mis­tress of Meyer Lan­sky’s, and a for­mer lover of the poet whose mur­der Han­nah is in­ves­ti­gat­ing. If it all sounds com­pli­cated, that’s be­cause it is. But the com­plex­ity is part of this novel’s ap­peal. Lazar weaves the past and the present, the real and the imag­ined to­gether, but he does not do it seam­lessly. In­stead, he makes the reader think, ask ques­tions and dis­cover con­nec­tions, all of which make his novel that much more re­ward­ing to read.

Sharon Chisvin is a Win­nipeg writer.

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