My 2016 by Lindsay Semel

I’ve found solidarity with characters who, like pebbles in the path of an avalanche, find themselves getting caught up in it.

This year, as I watched wide-eyed and drop-jawed the deeds and choices of my fellow humans, I read books that probe the alarming sensation of impotence in the face of inertia. I’ve found solidarity with characters who, like pebbles in the path of an avalanche, find themselves not stopping or redirecting the object in motion, but getting caught up in it.

I opened the year with a copy of S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh, lent to me by the writer, activist, and academic, David Shulman, who penned its illuminating afterward. Yizhar’s slim novella, originally published in Hebrew in 1949 with no English translation until 2008, narrates the exile of Palestinian villagers during 1948-9—the time Israel celebrates as the birth of its statehood and Palestine laments as its nakba or catastrophe. The narrator is one of the young Israeli soldiers sent to relocate mostly children and the elderly from the village destined to be resettled by Jews. His extremely complex voice captures the haunting cruelty of the task at hand without forsaking responsibility for his complicity—a complicity assured as much by official narrative as by official order. The novella is an important one in Israel’s national memory and happens to be good. Its intimate and colorful narrative voice, rich with Biblical references, shies away from none of the narrator’s labyrinthine conflict. And it’s never been more relevant. As I was reading the novel, I was living in West Jerusalem and visiting Palestine every weekend, bearing witness to the inheritance of the nakba. Over tea in their large, carpeted tent, the inhabitants of one village (clinging to the rocky hillside with nothing but the conviction that it belonged there) described their 4 am wake-up call by Israeli soldiers with stun grenades. Their offence? Asking for the soldiers to give back the generator they’d stolen. And whether you’re the one throwing the stun grenades, the one protecting your kids from them, or the one horrified by it all, the grenades still get thrown.

I also enjoyed Virginie Despentes’ explosive love story, Bye Bye Blondie, published in new English translation this year from the French. Gloria, an ageing punkette, suddenly finds herself with stakes in the game when she reconnects with her first love, whom she met in a psych ward as a teenager. She discovers for the first time what it feels like to have the wants that drive most human beings, such as sustaining a healthy relationship and a personally and financially lucrative career. But the storm inside her is just as unstoppable as those of wind and rain, and before she knows what’s happened, she’s pushed her lover to a point of serious desperation and gotten herself kicked off her own project. And hating every moment of her self-demise, more for her lover’s sake than for her own, she still doesn’t make it stop. What’s more, considering the life of vapid materialism offered by Despentes as the only alternative, I as the reader wasn’t so convinced that she should.

Alisa Ganieva’s The Mountain and the Wall, translated from the Russian, struck me as eerily portentous. As rumors circulate that the Russian government is going to build a wall to annex off the largely Muslim Caucus region from the rest of the country, Islamic extremism gains momentum in the protagonist Shamil’s home city of Makhachkala. Ganieva weaves a lovely and intricate tapestry for her reader of the various factors that might influence Caucasian identity—in no way disconnected from those that allow the borrowed fundamentalism to fill the power vacuum in the novel. Shamil watches in shock as his friends and family either join the fundamentalist movement or disappear until there’s little left for the remainders to do but hide at home and try not to piss off the new regime.

And so it’s easy to ask the same question of these characters and of myself—why don’t you just…? Why don’t you refuse your orders, young soldier? Gloria, why can’t you just stop sabotaging yourself? Shamil, why not organize a resistance (or something)? As for myself, I’m not even sure what questions to ask… perhaps such questions are easier to formulate for an outsider peeking in. Regardless, though, as a reader and as a human, it’s not the answer that’s interesting so much as the query.

Lindsay Semel is the Assistant Director of Asymptote for Educators, a new initiative that provides resources for educators who’d like to use Asymptote content in the classroom. She recently earned a BA in Comparative Literature and Arabic Language and Literature, and works alternately in education, sustainable agriculture, and freelance editing. She also enjoys yoga.