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Lies, First Person
By Gail Hareven
Open Letter Books
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
In a universe where I'm now reading and reviewing several hundred novels every single year, it's always a portentous occasion when one of them slows me down to a crawl merely because I don't want to miss anything that's being said; and that's what's made me realize what a special thing I've had on my hands for the last month with Gail Hareven's Lies, First Person, originally published in her native Hebrew in 2008 but with an English version only coming out late last year, thanks to the tireless Open Letter Books which exists only to publish such complicated literature in translation.
At its heart, it's a domestic thriller with a killer hook: the feisty middle-aged heroine, who grew up Jewish in Israel, once had an uncle who was a respected academe, until he published an instantly controversial biography of Hitler in which he tried to "humanize" the dictator by writing it first-person, and who as part of his "journey to understanding evil" ended up raping and intellectually torturing the heroine's mentally challenged sister while she was a pre-teen, a fact that never came out publicly but that tore her family apart in differing ways for each person. Now it's thirty years later and this long-lost monster is back out on a high-profile "apology tour," renouncing the book that once made his career, and has asked our narrator if she'd be willing to meet with him when he's scheduled to lecture in Jerusalem in a few months. (That's about the minimum you need to know in order to understand the book's main thrust, although be aware that the story goes off in several other interesting directions besides just this.)
This would be fascinating enough, but then Hareven writes the actual novel in what I like to call a "Judaic style of literature," based on how I saw CCLaP author Kevin Haworth write his essay collection for us a few years ago, Famous Drownings in Literary History; not quite a straight narrative, not quite memoir, partly self-aware and partly getting lost in the story, with humor and drama flip-flopping on a page-by-page basis. That's what makes the book such a linguistic delight, apart from the very sober but fascinating plot being unwound (and it's a very rewarding plot, make no mistake, one that would make for a fine adaptation into an indie film); it's not told in a straightforward style at all, but rather a wry, metafictional, self-knowing one, a style that relies on symbolism and metaphor, fable-telling and postmodernist revisionist fable-telling, and no wonder that it took a really special publisher like Open Letter to get the subtle translation from Hebrew right. (For those who don't know, Open Letter is much like the Criterion Collection from the film world -- dedicated nerdy professionals who are obsessively devoted to technical quality within the arts, in this case with doing artistically faithful translations of books that are notoriously difficult to translate.)
A book with something for everyone, it will be a real treat for those who like their literature dense, European-flavored, and culturally significant; but it's a hell of a beach-style page-turner too, and you're never quite sure what the exciting ending of this story is going to be until you actually get to it. It comes strongly recommended today for one and all, and will undoubtedly be making our best-of lists at the end of the year.
Out of 10: 9.7