A holy gem

Moshe Sakal’s first novel trans­lated into English is a clunky, sprawl­ing tale of di­a­monds, love, and Is­raeli his­tory

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • BEN FISHER

The Di­a­mond Set­ter, the most re­cent of­fer­ing from Is­raeli novelist Moshe Sakal, is a sprawl­ing, and at times sput­ter­ing, fam­ily his­tory and love story re­volv­ing around a mys­te­ri­ous blue di­a­mond that has made its way across the Mid­dle East.

The novel is set in Tel Aviv, and be­gins when Fa­reed, a young a man from Damascus, crosses into Is­rael and heads to Jaffa to ex­plore his roots. He tum­bles into Tel Aviv’s gay scene, and ul­ti­mately gets in­volved with an Is­raeli sol­dier and his boyfriend – the grand­son of a lo­cal jeweler. The di­a­mond in Fa­reed’s pocket con­nects these fam­i­lies back for decades, be­fore the State of Is­rael was even founded.

Sakal’s work en­com­passes a me­an­der­ing fam­ily tree that is not par­tic­u­larly well kept and trimmed; new mem­bers of the fam­ily are in­tro­duced late in the book when Sakal might be bet­ter off try­ing to tie things up. Of course, some of the great­est works of fic­tion fol­low fam­i­lies across gen­er­a­tions. No­bel Prize win­ner Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez’s One Hun­dred Years Of Soli­tude, for in­stance, tracks the story of the Buen­dia fam­ily in the fic­tional Colom­bian town of Ma­condo through the decades. Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Freedom re­cip­i­ent Is­abel Al­lende’s The House of the Spirits spans four gen­er­a­tions in her na­tive Chile. And so this might be for­given if the prose was par­tic­u­larly poetic or mov­ing, but it’s not.

Sakal is no Mar­quez, nor is he an Al­lende; from the out­set of the novel, sappy sen­tences like “Me­nashe did not an­swer, but his eyes said it all” ap­pear, which seem more suit­able for a fail­ing cre­ative writ­ing stu­dent than a novelist once short­listed for Is­rael’s Sapir Prize. Later in the book, emo­tive eyes make an­other ap­pear­ance: “Honi laughed. ‘No one’s go­ing to hear this show any­way.’ But his eyes were se­ri­ous.” It may have been at this point that this reviewer be­gan to roll his own eyes.

Whether it’s an is­sue of writ­ing or of trans­la­tion is un­clear, although since trans­la­tor Jessica Co­hen has also worked on the writ­ings of Is­rael and Man Booker Prize win­ner David Gross­man, it would stand to rea­son that the prob­lems lie in the book’s com­po­si­tion.

In ad­di­tion to be­ing a fam­ily his­tory, it’s a gay love story – be­tween Fa­reed, who ar­rives in Is­rael with the afore­men­tioned blue di­a­mond in his pocket (it even has a name – “Sabakh”), and his new friends.

In one of the chap­ters, an Arab-Is­raeli char­ac­ter gives his take on the con­cept of pink wash­ing: “You have to watch out for pink wash­ing. Do you know what that is? He doesn’t want you to go back to New York and tell all your friends how peachy ev­ery­thing is in the only democ­racy in the Mid­dle East. Bot­tom line is, we’re sec­ond-class cit­i­zens here, and it doesn’t make any dif­fer­ence that we’re al­lowed to fall in love with men and that Is­raeli so­ci­ety ac­cepts us, sup­pos­edly. That goes out the win­dow the sec­ond we turn up at the air­port and try to get on a flight.”

The book is set dur­ing Is­rael’s “cot­tage-cheese protests,” and the novel looks back on them with rose-col­ored glasses, cap­tur­ing the hope­ful sen­ti­ment of that era. It fea­tures a promis­ing cast of char­ac­ters in­clud­ing a sui­ci­dal pi­ano teacher; a jeweler who makes a pil­grim­age to Ground Zero in New York ev­ery year for the High Holy Days; and a for­mer songstress in Syria who made aliya, re­gal­ing her grand-nephew with tales of the Ot­toman Em­pire.

The is­sue is less with the char­ac­ters them­selves and more with the ways that they speak and in­ter­act with oth­ers in the novel, in clunky and dense di­a­logue.

To Sakal’s credit, there are a hand­ful of spot-on de­scrip­tions. Take, for in­stance, his de­pic­tion of the Carmel Mar­ket in Tel Aviv, fa­mil­iar to any­one who has gone shop­ping in Is­rael: “As he made his way through the stalls, he stepped on vegetable scraps, crushed flow­ers, and chicken bones cov­ered with car­ti­lage and blood. There was a fishy odor, com­bined with a stench of blood and var­i­ous other mar­ket smells.”

Over­all, the project and plot is too am­bi­tious for the poor writ­ing, which turns a book that ought to be a page turner into one that sea­soned read­ers will be re­lieved to put down.

(Henry Ni­cholls/Reuters)

A BLUE di­a­mond for sale at Sotheby’s in Lon­don ear­lier this month.

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