If you’re game for a novel about just how sad, fractured and tricky cultural identity can get, Arab-Israeli author Sayed Kashua’s “Track Changes” is the book for you.
Kashua is a novelist/screenwriter/journalist whose debut novel, “Dancing Arabs,” was a sly, caustic tale of an Arab-Israeli scholarship boy who, like Kashua, wins entry into a world of Israeli privilege through his good grades. His fantasies, as he moves toward manhood and marriage, range from wanting to pass as Jewish to wanting to be first Arab prime minister of Israel. He’s driven by a desire for total Jewish love and acceptance — and he falls to pieces when he doesn’t get them.
“Dancing Arabs” delivered an on-the-ground sense of being an Arab in Israel that you couldn’t get from any news report. It also helped launch Kashua (who writes in Hebrew) as a pop-cultural presence in Israel, notably through “Arab Labor,” a TV sitcom he created in 2007.
“I wanted to tell the Israelis a story, the Palestinian story,” Kashua said of his early writing aspirations in The Guardian in 2014. “Surely when they read it they will understand … another book, another movie, another newspaper column and another script for television and my children will have a better future.”
When Kashua won Israel’s prestigious Bernstein Prize for best original Hebrew novel for “Second Person Singular” in 2011, it seemed his strategy might be working. But a few years later, he and his family left Israel for the U.S.
“Twenty-five years that I am writing and knowing bitter criticism from both sides, but last week I gave up,” he wrote of his decision. “Last week something inside of me broke. When Jewish youth parade through the city shouting ‘Death to the Arabs,’ and attack Arabs only because they are Arabs, I understood that I had lost my little war.”
“Track Changes” weaves fictional variations on that war and loss. Its narrator, Saeed, is a ghostwriter-for-hire, penning memoirs for clients who, ironically, are mostly Israeli Jews wanting to commemorate their roles in building the Jewish state.
Now living in an Illinois college town, Saeed is semi-estranged from his wife whose name, oddly, is Palestine, though no one but Saeed calls her that. When he learns his father is dying, he cajoles Palestine (the only real breadwinner in the family) to pay his airfare back to Israel. Once there, however, he’s reluctant to show his face in the town where he grew up.
The book’s suspense stems in part from Kashua’s delay in revealing the transgression that alienated Saeed from his family 14 years earlier. What we learn in the meantime is that one of his brothers is still furious with him, his father seems not to be as upset as you might expect, and his mother’s words to him — “Don’t be afraid, nothing will happen to you” — aren’t exactly reassuring.
We also learn Palestine had a first husband to whom she was devoted and that her marriage to Saeed, from the start, has been an affair of “unwritten agreements, signed, over the years, in long silences.” The marriage, Saeed acknowledges, was “imposed on me on account of one wretched and lone mistake.”
Saeed’s crime, it turns out, is a story he wrote and published as a young man. It contained no reference to any living person that he was aware of — yet it caused shame, blame and community uproar in his little hometown.
The book’s title, a double entendre, refers in part to the way Saeed has switched tracks from an Israeli experience to a befuddling American life. But it also is the name of a function on his computer that, in the autobiographies he ghostwrites, helps track “the deletions, comments, and additions I made to the original story.”
Kashua renders some of those deletions literally when it comes to his own story, using crossed-out (but still legible) passages in which Saeed seems to be trying to deny painful memories or withdraw statements he regrets making. His problem is not just with the Jewish state’s oppression of its Arab populace (Saeed, like his creator, grew up in Israel proper, not the Gaza Strip or West Bank), but with the mores of the small town where he grew up.
“I cannot understand the significance of pride, cannot internalize the meaning of honor,” he laments in a key passage. “Only the power of flight and defeat can I comprehend.”
Writing as a venting of frustration … writing as a corrective of a flawed reality … writing as a liberating impulse that inevitably offends some who read it — all are in play in this mournfully shape-shifting novel, deftly translated by Mitch Ginsburg.
“Track Changes” by Sayed Kashua, translated by Mitch Ginsburg, Grove Press, 231 pp., $26