Israeli Novel Probes Occupation's Conficts
ISRAELI writer David Grossman's first book to receive worldwide attention was his searching nonfictional examination of his country's occupation of the conquered territories, ``The Yellow Wind,'' which was published in the United States in 1988. A year later, his ambitious and accomplished novel about the Holocaust, ``See Under: LOVE'' (published in Israel in 1986), won high acclaim from English-speaking critics for its imaginative power and literary sophistication. ``The Smile of the Lamb,'' appearing now in English, was Grossman's first novel, published in Israel in 1983. While it is scarcely as extraordinary an achievement as ``See Under: LOVE,'' it is clearly the work of a sensitive mind bent on tackling the most difficult and painful moral questions. As in ``The Yellow Wind,'' but this time in a fictional mode, Grossman is dealing with the problems of the Israeli occupation, specifically, with the heavy toll that is extracted on a people who have to will thems elves to play the role of occupier.
Grossman tells the story from the viewpoints of four characters. Uri Laniado is a young Israeli soldier, a Sephardic Jew from Iraq, whose engaging openness and innocence appeal to everyone who meets him. He is befriended by Khilmi, an old Arab storyteller regarded as half-mad by his fellow villagers. Khilmi's belief in the power of passive resistance is shattered when Uri brings him word that Yazdi - an abandoned boy Khilmi brought up as his son - has been killed by soldiers. Khilmi had once believed Ya zdi's simple-mindedness would save him from the world's contagion, but Yazdi had joined a local terrorist group. Khilmi still loves Uri for his innocence, but this does not prevent him from deciding to seize his Israeli friend as a hostage.
Uri's commander, charged with the task of rescuing him, is a tough-minded man named Katzman, a Holocaust survivor, who is drawn in spite of himself to Uri's lamb-like sweetness. Although he cannot share Uri's innocence, Katzman has tried to be humane and fair-minded in his job as military governor of an occupied Arab town. His is the only story narrated in the third person, and his is the viewpoint that is least colored by his own emotions.
Pondering the question of whether to take on the job as governor, he honestly considers his own attitudes. Katzman decides that trying to run a decent occupation is making the best of a bad situation. Yet even his best intentions seem doomed to failure.
There are further complications. Uri's wife, Shosh, the fourth narrative voice, is the daughter of idealistic first-generation Israeli pioneers. She works as a psychologist at an institution for juvenile delinquents. A follower of Viktor Frankl, Shosh seeks out the ``nucleus of love'' - some germ of attachment the patient must have felt at least once in his life for a parent, a friend, - as the key to his rehabilitation.
Yet despite her humanistic faith in love, Shosh is bitter about the difficulty of living up to her parents' ideals, impatient with her lovable husband, and drawn to the more cynical Katzman, who is not really capable of love.
But more important than showing the conflict between civilized ideals and political-military realities, Grossman's novel shows the powerful reality of those ideals, whether it's the power of love, healing or devastating, or the passion for justice, which Katzman insists is not a mere social convention, but a deep-rooted instinct.
The problem for the Israelis, of course, is made worse by the fact that no end to the period of occupation seems in sight. Thoughtful, often profound, sometimes a little self-important in its portentousness, ``The Smile of the Lamb'' is a compelling look at a hard situation.