Winner of the 2011 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Crime Novel
In Middle East lore the Debba is a mythical Arab hyena that can turn into a man who lures Jewish children away from their families to teach them the language of the beasts. To the Arabs he is a heroic national symbol; to the Jews he is a terrorist. To David Starkman, “The Debba” is a controversial play, written by his father the war hero, and performed only once, in Haifa in 1946, causing a massive riot. By 1977, David is living in Canada, having renounced his Israeli citizenship and withdrawn from his family, haunted by persistent nightmares about his catastrophic turn as a military assassin for Israel. Upon learning of his father’s gruesome murder, he returns to his homeland for what he hopes will be the final time. Back in Israel, David discovers that his father's will demands he stage the play within forty-five days of his death, and though he is reluctant to comply, the authorities’ evident relief at his refusal convinces him he must persevere. With his father’s legacy on the line, David is forced to reimmerse himself in a life he thought he’d escaped for good.The heart-stopping climax shows that nothing in Israel is as it appears, and not only are the sins of the fathers revisited upon the sons, but so are their virtues—and the latter are more terrible still. Disguised as a breathtaking thriller, Avner Mandelman’s novel reveals Israel’s double soul, its inherent paradoxes, and its taste for both art and violence. The riddle of the Debba—the myth, the play, and the novel— is nothing less than the tangled riddle of Israel itself.
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Necessary Evil and Necessary Hypocrisy: An Essay by Avner Mandelman
Necessary evil is a cost of civilized life. This is a theme that runs through much of my work, since all societies have dirty jobs that must be done, if society is to survive. But what if some truly necessary jobs--secret assassinations, blackmailing of spies’ kin, physical interrogations--are also immoral? So immoral that society cannot acknowledge their existence even to itself? Who shall do those jobs, and what should happen to the doers? This is one of the most incendiary topics an author can choose, because it forces his readers to confront their own hypocrisy. It’s also the topic John le Carré embraced.
I still remember the electric shock I felt as I encountered George Smiley for the first time, when I was still living in Israel in the 1960s. Here, finally, was reality as I witnessed it daily, both in war and in life constantly shadowed by war. No other words I’d read spoke of this terrible dilemma more eloquently and disturbingly. It was the part of life essentially unfit for print. Because I had met many Smileys, I instantly knew that this is what I had always wanted to write about but never knew it was allowed. Le Carré, however, did not shy away from the question of necessary evil, and his novels thereby transcend genre spy fiction. He succeeds, I believe, because of two virtues: First, of course, is his immense talent. But second, and not least, is his enormous sympathy both for his protagonist and for the reader.
In le Carré novels, George Smiley and his ilk are those who do the morally dirty jobs on which we all depend. From Smiley’s first appearance in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, le Carré shows, often to the reader’s discomfort, that the rest of us can afford our clean consciences only because such fallen pragmatists are ready to sacrifice their own. And this is precisely why, after the fallen have committed their immoral deeds, they must by necessity be publicly punished for them: so the rest of us can truthfully insist we would never have condoned such things. And this, in a nutshell, is the moral dilemma of modern times. Whereas warriors of old have been called to sacrifice their lives, modern warriors, besides being asked to risk death, are also asked to sacrifice their sanity and even their honor. But unlike their old-time brethren, modern warriors must sacrifice their all without even the comfort that public recognition can provide.
This, to me, is the essence of le Carré's Smiley, a modern shadow warrior "possessing the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin" (A Murder of Quality). He sees reality cold and clear, and stands ready to do what must be done--and be pilloried for it--while others around him conveniently pretend it’s not necessary at all. He is a new type of modern tragic hero, whose essential tragedy lies in the fact that his soul-destroying acts cannot even be recognized, or told. But because le Carré did tell, then so, by and by, could I.About the Author :
Avner Mandelman was born in Israel and served in the Israeli Air Force during the Six-Day War. Two of his story collections have been published in Canada, and the story collection Talking to the Enemy was published in the U.S. and chosen by Kirkus as one of the twenty-five best books of 2005, and by the ALA as the first recipient of the Sophie Brody Medal for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature. Several of his stories have won awards in the U.S., Canada, and Israel, including being selected for the Pushcart Prize, and the Journey Prize. His short story, “Pity,” was selected for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 1995. This is his first novel.
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