Hareven, Gail. “Lies, First Person”, translated by Dalya Bilu, Open Letter; Tra edition, 2015.
Revenge and Identity
Elinor Brandeis lives a comfortable life—she writes a popular column in the newspaper, her marriage is good as are her kids but suddenly everything changes. Her estranged uncle, Aaron Gotthilf, is coming to Jerusalem to give a speech asking forgiveness for his decades-old book, Hitler, First Person that caused the Jews in the Diaspora to take sides. The book was Gotthilf’s attempt to understand and then explain what it would have been like to be Hitler. But that is Not Elinor’s only problem with her uncle. While he was writing the book, he stayed at Elinor’s parents’ home and while there he sexually assaulted her sister who is a bit slow.
As the time nears for the visit, Elinor relives what happened those time and she does so over and over again. At the while she thinks of what kind of revenge she might take on her uncle. He has become her Hitler and she wants him gone. She is obsessed with revenge but we are not sure if Elinor is losing her sanity and following the evil of her uncle. She finds herself writing in the first person just as Gotthilf did and we cannot help but wonder if she is doing so in order to make us question her or to forgive a terrible crime.
Elinor has obsesses about issues that are part of Jewish history and identity, trauma, injustice and the need for safety. This is in contrast with her middle-class lifestyle where everything is fine. She is middle-aged and loves Oded, her husband and her two grown sons. For the things that obsess Elinor Brandeis, the narrator, are at once utterly personal and deeply rooted in Jewish history and identity: the nature of trauma, the memory of injustice, and the desperate need to find a sense of safety in a dangerous world.
As the book opens, Elinor seems to enjoy a serene middle-class existence, which she herself describes as a Garden of Eden. A middle-aged mother of two grown sons. Yes, her life is good now and so different from when she was a child. She and her sister Elisheva grew up in an old Jerusalem hotel run by her parents who were a bit bohemian and who never really had time for their children. Now she writes about the city she loves, Jerusalem by creating the character of Alice who has adventures in the city. Elinor loves the way Alice sees Jerusalem and she is, in effect, her alter ego.
Author Gail Hareven divides Elinor’s narration between Alice who is naïve and Alice who harbors suspicions. We question if they are indeed opposites. The reader soon understands that Elinor has a sense of grievance; she knew her parents were narcissistic and this took away from their child-rearing. Because they seemed uninterested in their two daughters, Elinor blames them for the fact that her sister had been abused by another family member. Their uncle as an American intellectual who had come to Jerusalem to work on a book about the Holocaust. Much later she learned that during those periods that he was supposedly writing his book, he was molesting Elisheva. She does not describe fully what went on and we only get pieces of the story—it seems that he read the Marquis de Sade to Elisheva and he had her perform some bizarre physical postures. When Elisheva finally reveals the abuse, her family is destroyed by the burden of guilt and horror. The mother dies f a heart condition but Elinor believes that she took her own life. Her father moved to Italy and tried to begin a new life minus the memories from the past. Elinor, who was by then in college, was left to care for her sister. It did not take long for Elisheva to develop psychoses. She stopped going out of the house and became more and more frail. Soon Elinor felt that she was losing herself as Elisheva had done and she ultimately had her committed to a mental institution. This is the cause of Elinor’s guilt and just like her parents did to her, she abandoned her sister. She married Oded and she once again had a family and all was fine for twenty years.
Then she hears from her uncle who is going to Jerusalem for a conference and he wants to see her. She is reminded of the horror he imparted on the family and she suddenly becomes obsessed. Elinor sees Aaron’s evil everywhere and Jerusalem’s gold soon tarnishes for her. She decides that she and Aaron can live in the same city.
Elinor learns that he is not only evil in her mind but also in the mind of the larger Jewish community because of the book he wrote back then. In Aaron’s attempt to understand Hitler, he entered his mind and used him as a narrator. When Elinor reads the book she is so dumbstruck that she can hardly speak. The evil that he describes in his book resembles the evil he does in real life. Are they related? Elinor sees that the evil he committed on Elisheva is dehumanizing just as the evil perpetrated by Hitler on the Jewish people.
Elinor decides to go and visit Elisheva who is leading a happy life as a wife and a mother in rural Illinois and she is in the process of becoming an evangelical Christian. She has forgiven Aaron (Jesus told her to do so). Author Hareven brings up the differences in the two religions by reminding us that Judaism respect law and Christianity respects love. Now Elinor is moved to vengeance and that idea becomes an obsession for her.
There is a reckoning between Elinor and Aaron and she is convinced that he must be killed. What we do not yet know is whether her obsession is for justice or is it simply another form of evil? These questions are not fully answered or are they likely to be. They are for us to ponder.