A holy gem
Moshe Sakal’s first novel translated into English is a clunky, sprawling tale of diamonds, love, and Israeli history
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.
A BLUE diamond for sale at Sotheby’s in London earlier this month.