Translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
Open Letter, February 2015
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
Is there a limit to freedom of expression? Should some actions not be forgiven? These two questions form the core of Israeli author Gail Hareven’s powerful novel Lies, First Person. Hareven’s narrator Elinor Gotthilf writes a popular newspaper column, “Alice in the Holy City,” a fictional chronicle of an American tourist’s exploration of Jerusalem that everyone believes to be real. She’s married to a successful, supportive husband and has two adult sons living in the US. She lives, in her words, in a Garden of Eden. So what’s her problem? The problem is she’s traumatized.
She was traumatized when an uncle Aaron stayed at her family’s Jerusalem pension when she was young. And while he was there, this uncle Aaron, a celebrated historian, wrote an inflammatory book, Hitler, First Person. It was the first (and only?) attempt of telling Hitler’s story from his own point of view. Uncle Aaron believed that his book would “present a historical angle that other people haven’t had the courage to approach up to now,” and that “giving voice to Hitler is not only a legitimate literary device that should be accepted in the framework of the principle of freedom of expression, but an important tool in advancing our understanding of the horrors of the twentieth century.” After all, “Hitler was a human being,” Aaron explains, “and as such, he is not beyond the bounds of explanation.” After all, “to understand does not mean to forgive.” The result was a disaster, career suicide for Uncle Aaron, disgrace for the entire Gotthilf family, forever associated with the taint of 20th century’s Satan.
But what traumatized Elinor is that Uncle Aaron was consistently raping her sister while writing his book. He raped her and raped her and eventually she had to have an abortion; he was so turned on by her blood that he raped her while she was recovering from her abortion. Once Elinor’s parents found out—convinced only after seeing the medical records—her mother committed suicide and her father abandoned the family, leaving Elinor to take care of her sister, who was first committed to an insane asylum and later moved to middle America and converted to Christianity.
Yeah, it’s pretty dark, fucked up shit. But Hareven manages to write it with bursts of intoxicatingly beautiful prose and an engaging elliptical style, pushing forward and then circling back to reveal new information. Insightful zingers of wisdom punctuate most paragraphs, and so she pulls us into a gray area where we’re no longer sure if anyone has the right to judge someone else. For “nobody is Mother Theresa, maybe not even Mother Teresa herself” and that “people are just people, none of us is pure and we are all influenced by consideration of personal interest.”
Decades later, Uncle Aaron attempts to connect with Elinor and her family in Jerusalem. He’s touring the world, apologizing for his book in a series of lectures. He admits he went too far. He wants forgiveness. Much of the intellectual public has forgiven him for the book. Even Elinor’s sister has forgiven him for the serial rape. But similar to how many people believe Aaron’s book unforgivably pushed past the limits of free speech, Elinor and her husband think that there are some acts that cannot be forgiven. Such as the rape of a niece. And herein lies the difference between the tenets of Judaism and Christianity. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. If someone slaps your cheek, turn the other. Love your enemies.
But Elinor and her husband aren’t Christian. And they aren’t interested in forgiveness. They want revenge.