I needn’t have worried because Ayelet, like her novel, is warm and witty. I could have asked her anything. We talked about Mario Vargas Llosa, Primark and why Londoners wait at traffic lights whereas Tel Avivians stop for nothing. But I still itched to ask what it was like living in a country which is often at war with its neighbours. How could I raise this enormous topic? I mean, I wasn’t speaking to an Israeli writer any more than, when meeting Andrew O’Hagan, I was speaking to a Scottish writer. I was speaking to a writer, first and foremost, a human being.
As it turned out, another dinner guest moved things along by saying she’d been reading Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, Peter Pomerantsev’s new book about modern Russia. This was a couple of days after opposition politician Boris Nemstov had been murdered in Moscow. Putin, we agreed, is a monster and, for a moment, we agreed that he’s a monster who enjoys the support of the Russian public. Except then I wondered: How can I possibly know what Russians think of Putin? I’m told by most news outlets that Russians are rallying behind Putin, as the western powers impose economic sanctions and back Russia’s enemies in Ukraine, but I bet plenty of Russians feel as hostile towards Putin as many Americans did towards George W. Bush throughout the 2000s.
Even with new forms of media, and the way protestors used Twitter and Facebook to communicate during the Arab Spring and Occupy, it remains extremely difficult to figure out what’s going on in a country without going there. Last August, it was reported that 95% of Israelis supported the bombing of Gaza. This was hard to accept so, now that we were talking about the problems of gauging what Russians think of Putin, I asked Ayelet if there was much opposition to Netanyahu among Israelis. Of course, she answered, but added that, last August, her husband was among anti-war demonstrators who were set upon by police and nationalists. Then Ayelet described sitting in her office, listening to rockets flying through the air, wondering: “How can you write about anything but this?”
This morning, after Netanyahu’s Likud party have won the Israeli general election, it looks like people who share Ayelet’s views are in the minority. Simon Schama said on Newsnight as the results came in: “There’s a rising expression of ‘Oy vey’ over Tel Aviv right now.” Turnout was around 72 percent but Netanyahu’s victory doesn’t mean his foreign policy reflects his people’s wishes. As the journalist Eve Fairbanks wrote recently: “Everywhere I went in Israel, I was struck by how much the private discourse among ordinary people differed from the public stance of martial unity. It became difficult to believe the single poll claiming 95% of Israelis backed the war, or at least that they backed it unreservedly.”
People in Tel Aviv might be experiencing similar disenchantment to the young New Yorkers of Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost (2007) who, following Bush’s re-election in 2004, realise they and the people they know don’t swing elections, that millions of Americans in the great wide out there think differently. There’s a similar sense in Turkey where Recep Erdogan’s right-wing government depends on support from the religious provinces to impose its conservative agenda on the more secularist cities. Two years ago, Orhan Pamuk supported protests against Erdogan’s plans to redevelop Istanbul’s Gezi Park. He objected to Erdogan’s attempt to erase the city’s past and his forthcoming novel, A Strangeness in My Mind (publishing in October 2015), sets a love story against the backdrop of changes in Istanbul society over four decades.
When I asked Ayelet Gundar-Goshen if she’d written about rockets over Tel Aviv, she answered: “Indirectly.” This is what Percy Shelley meant when he called poets “unacknowledged legislators”, that their ideas indirectly enter a society’s bloodstream. Whenever I hear somebody compare the plight of Palestinians to that of black South Africans under apartheid, I think of Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist (1974). Written amid the heat and suffering of apartheid, Gordimer’s masterpiece urgently and indirectly demonstrates that reading novels is the way to find out what it’s like there.
Max Liu is a writer, journalist and reviewer for a number of publications including the Independent on Sunday, TLS and 3AM Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @maxjliu.