Smile of the Lamb: A Novel

Overview

In a chorus of voices The Smile of the Lamb tells the story of Uri, an idealistic young Israeli soldier serving in an army unit in the small Palestinian village of Andal, in the occupied territories, and his relationship with Khilmi, a nearly blind old Palestinian storyteller. Gradually as the violent reality of the occupation that infects both the occupier and the occupied alike merges with the old man’s stories, Uri, captivated by Khilmi’s wisdom, tries to solve the riddles ...

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The Smile of the Lamb: A Novel

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Overview

In a chorus of voices The Smile of the Lamb tells the story of Uri, an idealistic young Israeli soldier serving in an army unit in the small Palestinian village of Andal, in the occupied territories, and his relationship with Khilmi, a nearly blind old Palestinian storyteller. Gradually as the violent reality of the occupation that infects both the occupier and the occupied alike merges with the old man’s stories, Uri, captivated by Khilmi’s wisdom, tries to solve the riddles and deceits that make up his life.

Originally published in Hebrew in 1983, The Smile of the Lamb is a novel of disillusionment and a piercing examination of injustice and dishonesty.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Together with See Under: Love, and his heartfelt The Yellow Wind, these three books form a trilogy by Israel’s finest young writer.” —The New York Times

“A brilliantly constructed, hair-raising exploration of the ‘morphology of lies’ in the inextricably linked personal and political worlds of Israel.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Grossman is more than just another talented writer: Like Vaclav Havel, he is a moralist, a man with a conscience whose words cry out for absolute truth and fairness.” —Newsday (New York)

“[The Smile of the Lamb] is prophetic. A book which compels the heart and the imagination, as well as the mind.” —Los Angeles Times

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this unforgettable work, Israeli writer Grossman sets a critical juncture in his four narrators' lives against the moral and ethical corrosion of the Israeli occupation. (May)
Library Journal
A much-acclaimed Israeli writer ( The Yellow Wind and See Under: Love , both LJ ``Best Books'') here offers a tour de force about Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory that is a wrenching but ennobling experience for the reader. Originally published in Hebrew in 1983, the novel probes in devastating fashion both personal and national morality, trust, and truth. Uri, an idealistic young soldier, is serving in an army unit in the West Bank, under the command of Katzman, an enigmatic, embittered commander who is involved with Uri's wife, Shosh. Shosh, who works in a juvenile psychiatric institution, is beset by the death of a client who commits suicide after she has an affair with him. In the meantime, Uri is absorbed by his friendship with Hilmi, an old Arab storyteller who poignantly describes Palestinian life and culture. Hostage-taking, struggles of the heart and mind, and killing are all portrayed, with the falsehoods and fantasies of the players woven deftly into a whole. Grossman tells the story of the Jewish people in Israel and his perceptions of an erosion of their values. A troubling, difficult, but essential book. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/90.--Molly Abramowitz, Silver Spring, Md.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312420963
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 8/1/2003
  • Edition description: REV
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 699,735
  • Product dimensions: 5.52 (w) x 8.29 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet the Author

David Grossman is the author of two books of journalism, several children’s books, a play, and six novels, including Be My Knife and his latest essay collection, Death as a Way of Life: Ten Years After Oslo. He lives in Jerusalem.

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Read an Excerpt

The Smile of the Lamb

1

No, no, believe me, Khilmi, I made them up, all of them. Shosh, the woman I loved, the woman I left three days ago, and Katzman in Italy, and that boy who died of love, whose name I never knew. And even you, Khilmi. You'll be better off as a figment of my imagination, you'll see. With me you can be sure everything is what it seems. No surprises. I'm not telling you to join this dangerous life I lead, where nothing is what it seems, but as a story, Khilmi, as kan-ya-ma-kan?

Let's start now before I get to your village with the news I dread bringing you. Why don't we hide away instead and pull the covers up around us? And so, Khilmi, kan-ya-ma-kan, there was orthere was not, as all your tales begin, or as we say, once upon a time ...

I used to think this sort of thing could happen only in the shade of your lemon tree, Khilmi, in the darkness of your cave, with the little gears and cranes and cobwebby curtains, and the earthen jars that will be filled someday with rarest air so you can fly again. That's what I used to think, but I guess I was wrong: I guess there must be a Tel Aviv version of kan-ya-ma-kan, too, in the harsh sun, under glaring neon lights, in those immaculate rooms, gleaming white, where they record and transcribe your every word.

And so—kan-ya-ma-kan. I say it as you would, Khilmi, leaning back against the lemon tree with my eyes shut tight, groaning as if I had to pull a long string out of my belly, and here it comes, kan-ya-ma-kan; once upon a time there was a little girl with a bright and open face, a small, straight nose, blond hair she wore tied in the back, and round-rimmed glasses, and the little girl's name was Shosh.

Once upon a time, a kindly maiden set off to visit herself in the woods, but losing her way, she left a trail of love seeds and had to tunnel home through stonyhearted people, crawling in what she called a gyre, kan-ya-ma-kan.

Enough. It's all an act. I don't have the strength to tell the story. I don't have the strength to bring Khilmi the news. I should have made a U-turn and headed back for Tel Aviv, back to Shosh's story. Because I'm afraid she won't make it, and Katzman agrees. Help her, Uri, he begged me. You're the only one who can.

Not me. I need my strength to demolish what we had together, the things we said, the dreams we dreamed. But it won't be easy. I can see that now, after three days of scoffing at our little secrets, at the vows we made, kicking the furniture I built for us, obliteratingthe wonderfully simple words, as she called them, but it isn't working, strange to say; lies and illusions are much hardier than I supposed, and don't topple over just because you notice them. And when I try to pull them out of me, I feel a tugging at my roots. And I know that one or two of my lies have been disguised as private pain, words that have to be rendered physically. What will be left of me when all the destruction is over?

Kan-ya-ma-kan, once upon a time, and nowadays, too, roadside villages wakened from their slumbers, and princesses of yore clad in richly embroidered gowns walked out before dawn to collect dung for their tabuni ovens, and the smoke curls, and the fields are gray, but soon, when the sun rises, they'll burst into flame.

Like the villages in Italy. Maybe that's what draws me here. Maybe that's why I'm filled with longing. Santa Anarella, after a night of earthquakes; here, too, the olive trees stretch out in the morning, yawning through their knotholes, their leaves a bluish gray. But in Santa Anarella, the catastrophe was sudden and soon over. Here it has stretched out over five years. Time—says Abner—seeped through the perforations of injustice, like a poison that paralyzes the body and corrodes the mind, Abner said.

Here's a donkey. Hi, little fellow. He's just a foal. Didn't anyone teach you to be afraid of cars? To pull over when you see a car coming? Okay, I'll wait for you. Ah, I see. You've been fettered. I'm beginning to interest you, aren't I? No? Well, why are you staring at me? Your little mane is damp with dew. Go home to Mama, she'll lick it dry. I've got to run now. No, wait, how can you move with your legs tied? I'll have to pass you carefully. Nice of you to happen along to grace my story. Whoa, boy, I just saw your dead brother rotting in the lane over in the el Sa'adia neighborhood, and don't think it's easy for me to stand here making faces when I can seeright through you. I'm very sorry to say, I can see everything you have inside. I guess I must be warped or something. I didn't always know how to see behind appearances.

Where am I going? Khilmi is no more than a kan-ya-ma-kan, a fictional inventor of fictions. How can I believe that nonsense? Those stories about Darius, his patron and redeemer, or the hunter who drew lions in the sand, or even his dead son, Yazdi. The ravings of a madman. I mean, I don't understand any of it.

Shosh said once that what we think we understand, the bits of information we draw on, are like the least fit members of some imaginary herd. "Darwin's law of consciousness," she called it: that's what the herd uses against the deadly effects of human intelligence, leaving us with the poorest meat, and not much pleasure in the hunt.

It was during our trip abroad that she started honing her concepts this way, and I didn't understand what she was talking about. Why was she interested in hunting all of a sudden, when we were farmers, she and I, or so we vowed to each other, shoulder to shoulder, rustic as potato soup and the embroidered lining of our double quilt? Why were we hunters now, and what were we supposed to hunt?

Kan-ya-ma-kan, death is so near. Khilmi's Yazdi is dead, and the donkey down in the lane, and Shosh's boy. Burned matches all, but together they strike a flame by the light of which I will know who I am. Three days ago I switched on the tape recorder in Shosh's room and heard her tell the boy: Mordy, you don't know who you are and what you have inside, and the only way you can find out is by letting it out, she said. And I'm afraid of what I'm about to let out.

Enough. I've obliterated enough of her already. I don't belong to her anymore. This is where I belong, on this narrow, winding road, with the brown hens scurrying under the tires as I drive through the soft fog that blows itself over the hills, to the olive trees and mud-brickwalls, the dirty sheep, and the paths drawn in the dust, like Santa Anarella waking after a night of disaster so sudden, recovery will be just as swift, and they will smile again like the urchin Katzman took for a gallop on his back around the feeding station, around the big white tents marked with red crosses, and the gaping earth, and the open fields sighing through the night; that's where I long to be, though I spent only two weeks of my life there, because that was where I learned to love, to love myself, that was where I let it come out of me—and I knew.

But stop. Go back. No one asked you to drive out here to tell Khilmi his son is dead. Disaster drew you to Andal, as it always does, the undispatched courier of bad news. Go back, Uri, you loon, this is no job for the likes of you.

Last night was endless. It's been rough for several nights because of the thoughts I was having and because of hunger. I seem to have declared a hunger strike as I did once at my agricultural boarding school, haKfar haYarok. This time my reasons are just as good: all the things that Shosh has done to me, all she did to the boy, only that's not why I'm fasting. I'm fasting because I've been tied up in knots ever since she crossed her legs and announced it was time we had a frank and open talk. Her fingers began to tremble and I haven't been able to eat since then.

Last night was the roughest so far, though, after the skirmish in Juni, and before dawn the soldiers returned to the government building, and I could smell the coffee brewing, and I heard the big stove bellow in the kitchen and the quiet chatter of the men, so quiet it scared me, because I'd heard a helicopter taking off a little earlier, and helicopters are bad news. I lay there in the jail room they fixed up for me, staring at the window screen. I could still smell the donkey carcass. I must have imagined it, because the military government building is nowhere near the lane, but I still kept smellingthat smell, so I thought I must be going crazy from hunger and all the thoughts running around my head.

Then I heard Katzman coming down the stairs, and I heaved a sigh of relief. There was no mistaking those footsteps. I remember the first time I saw him in Santa Anarella, staggering up the street like a sick animal, bumping into everything in sight, though there wasn't much left standing to bump into. Only this time he was carrying a submachine gun. It's all gone now, I guess, everything we shared.

He walked up to the door, fiddled with the keys, and opened it. Then he came over to my cot and said to me calmly, "Stop acting like a ninny and open your eyes. I know you're not asleep." I opened my eyes and looked at him. So thin, his inert upper lip drooping sadly. I asked if there had been any casualties.

Three on their side, he said.

And the helicopter?

The general's. He stayed with us all night. What a mess, Uri.

He sat down on my bed, his head in his hands. His thinning hair was filthy and wild and stank of sweat. I felt kind of sorry for him because now he was going to have to get rid of me; I mean, after everything I'd done to him, he couldn't let me hang around in Juni anymore.

Want some coffee, Uri?

There, that's when I should have said, In case you're interested, Katzman, I haven't touched food or drink in three days, almost sixty hours, to be precise, and I'm not eating anything until you remove that donkey carcass; but the donkey wasn't my real reason for refusing to eat, so I said, Gee, I thought prisoners are only entitled to lukewarm tea in the morning, to which he answered coolly, "Fuck you, Uri. You know exactly why you're here." And he was right.

Then it went like this:

Uri?

What?

One of the three we killed last night—

Yeah?

He was the son of your friend.

Which one?

The old man. The one from Andal.

I was stunned. I could heard Khilmi say as plainly as if he'd been in the room with us: "He's an idiot child, that Yazdi"; and then I saw Khilmi the way he was last time we were together in his cave, smiling eerily as he told me that if I wished, I too could be a wonderful idiot; and I also remembered Shosh just then, and the harsh expression on her face, the blue veins standing out on her neck when she said, You'd be surprised how fast a lie develops layers of life around it.

And then I whispered to Katzman: Yazdi was an idiot, he was retarded. El Fatah exploited him. Khilmi took his mother in for money before he was born, in exchange for a handful of limp notes, as he puts it. Her father brought her to Khilmi's cave when she was no more than a frightened girl. Katzman rubbed his eyes, looking paler and a little more miserable than usual, and when I gazed up despairingly, I saw his key in the door.

Someone got her pregnant, you hear, Katzman, someone from a neighboring village; that kind of thing is more common than you might think, but they don't always kill the girls who disgrace their families. Sometimes they try to hush it up. And this girl's father came to see Khilmi and asked him to marry her. My mind was in a turmoil because I had calculated that one swift leap would take me to the door, so I just kept talking to Katzman, my lips saying one thing, my heart another (I had learned something in the past few days after all). Yazdi's mother was so skinny she looked like astring knotted in the middle; that's what they did if a girl got in trouble, they married her off to Khilmi, and people laughed at him behind his back, but he let them think they'd tricked him because his quarrel was not with them. I mean, you have to know the guy, Katzman, and then I leaped up from the bed like the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, remembering to snatch my army shirt from the chair on the way, and I was out of there, with only my shorts on, and I locked the door behind me and ran, free as the breeze.

Speeding down the corridor, I put on my army shirt, but got the buttons wrong (Shosh used to fix my collar), and holding back a laugh, I opened the door on the second floor, groped in the dark for a pair of anonymous trousers and an army sweater, and beat it out of there. I tried on the trousers—too big. Never mind. Running cautiously past the officers' mess, I overheard Sheffer talking about the skirmish. A great bear, that Sheffer. Yesterday he practically tore me apart. There's a field radio outside the toilet. Somebody's in there, taking a piss, whistling to himself. Well, somebody's field radio has just been swiped. Hey, man, be more careful next time. Out the back door to the parking lot. Hot steam rises from the vehicles. I choose Katzman's Carmel sedan, because I know it best. The keys are in the ignition. The guard gives me a nervous glance. No sweat, I honk him out of my way.

Then everything opens up.

But first, before heading out to the open spaces, to the painted villages, and Khilmi, I return briefly to the donkey. I tear through the back streets of the bazaar, past the roller shades of the closed shops, whispering good morning to the canaries and finches asleep in their cages inside, and then, bypassing the circular platform of Abu Marwan, Juni's spit-and-polish policeman, I graze the old water well, splash mud from the permanent puddle outside the mosque, and skid to a halt in the middle of the lane.

Here in the clear light of dawn, the stench seems to freeze. Perched atop the swollen carcass are a couple of birds I'm sure would never have dared show up in broad daylight. And there are also two mean-looking little dogs eyeing me suspiciously over the donkey's back. A brief pause before getting back to work. Sounds reverberate in the stillness. The dogs of Santa Anarella used to drive us crazy, dragging bodies out of the ruins and common graves at night and gnawing on them, and we were too exhausted to drive them away. And now, here—the sounds of gnawing and slurping, tooth and bone. I take a closer look: the birds strut over the exposed rib cage, within range of the dogs. Playing it cool. Neither side wants trouble. Who needs this? Why did I come here? I'm glad I came. I came to say goodbye to the donkey. To watch him decomposing in the dust, consumed by the dogs and the birds. Now I'm beginning to understand.

Slowly I start off, back up, pass a three-wheeled motorcycle loaded with grape cartons, and the houses that are emptying out the chamber pots of night, as I rehearse the main points, the most important words. Oh, my weary head. Why does Khilmi tell himself stories in order to remember when I tell them in order to forget, to break them up into fragments and throw away all that has been stifling me for the past year and a half, Shosh's growing success at the institute, the juvenile delinquents she cracked the way you crack a nut, and the crazy loop I ran between the government building and the lane in Juni, between the townspeople and their weary, whiny protests against arrest and seizure and humiliating treatment, and Katzman and Sheffer grabbing my arms and carrying me off, kicking and screaming, to the jail room. So much has to be thrown away, like big Zussia, with his perfume smell and his top-secret designs for a kite, and Abner, too, and those wonderful nights we spent together on civil-guard duty, walking through the quiet streets,talking and talking, and Leah, Shosh's mother, her strong, open face and her wise way of bending Abner to her will.

I try to throw them away, but they keep bouncing back. So I try again. They'll give up eventually. I mustn't become so emotionally involved. My time with Shosh has softened me. Left me vulnerable. Before her, this would never have happened. What I found with her and her parents, Abner and Leah, was so addictive I was in a great hurry to forget everything I had been before. They had given me a home, a place where I could nestle with their wonderfully simple love, and I wasn't careful enough.

I'd better not think about them now. I'd better just drive back to the army, to the despair that drained me day by day, back to those months after the breakup with Ruthy, the girl I ached for though we never met, and even further back, to my agricultural boarding school, to the radishes and strawberries I toiled over, back to the laughter of my classmates: You always want to be the scorekeeper, Uri, you're always on the sidelines. Back to my poor dead pigeons, and Zinder, the teacher who said I had a flair for writing and that I ought to keep at it, but how could I keep at it when all that mattered was surviving from one minute to the next. And now I clear a path through sticky clumps of memory, good and bad; there's Khilmi's village on the horizon, and right before it, my grandfather, muttering incantations, and so on through the morning mist, to a back yard far in the distance, where I picture a big kennel with a round hatch, and waiting for me there, as always, the red-eyed bitch with the floppy ears, a smooth warm body and sores on her back, and so much love for me.

During the War of Independence, when I was four years old, my grandfather Amram crawled under the bed with some dry biscuits and a prayer book. He was, as they say, in the prime of life, but he taught me never to open the door to strangers and to whistlepenitential hymns when "the brass" came near. His two sons—my father, David, and my uncle Moshe—had been POWs in Jordan, but only my father returned. He called Grandfather a stinking coward and a deserter, and swore he would never eat at the same table with him again. My father had gone a little crazy in prison. He composed a prayer for the quick and agonizing death of Arabs everywhere, and made us recite it in the morning, after the "I offer thanks." But he wasn't content with that, and started spending all his money on printing a special book of his own collected prayers and numerologies against the Arabs, and he used to accost people in the street and rave about it. He banished Grandfather to the shed in our back yard, and within a few days, hours, really, Grandfather began to age. I've never seen anything like it: he started speaking his childhood Arabic again, and thought he was back in Iraq. His skin hung down in folds—it almost crinkled when he moved, which wasn't too often. And he told the future by the red ants that crawled in through the cracks between the tiles. He kept getting skinnier and skinnier, lying there on his bed in the dark, mumbling in his sleep, calling me strange names and stuffing notes into his mattress, revealing things I didn't know because it wasn't me they happened to.

And child that I was, I grasped the crazy key to his hallucinations: kan-ya-ma-kan, once upon a time, in the glorious days of the War of Independence, there was a man of Israel who suckled at the teat of fear. And once upon a time there was a boy who hated his parents, who hated school, who hated "Here comes Laniado, 'Sin of Samaria the Second.'" And this boy used to play hooky and hide in a certain back yard in the Bet Yisrael neighborhood, not far from his house, in a kennel that smelled of crushed straw, where he lay all morning beside the big, warm dog, with the books he had borrowed from the Histadrut library, straining his eyes in the dim light, and emerging as Michel Strogoff, David Copperfield, or Ben Hur, so happy heforgot to be careful when the other children came home from school and threw their school bags down.

But drive on. Lies, all lies. The menfolk's square you're passing now, for instance, with its skeleton of a car that probably dates back to the Ottoman Empire, this square, too, is a lie, and so is everything that is supposed to have happened here, such as Khilmi flying overhead like a quiet old bird; I mean, that's preposterous, and so are the other things, like Katzman's father imprinting his own fading memories in Katzman's mind, or Shosh lecturing me so eloquently on the morphology of lies; and Zussia isn't the only abstruse sort of hero, as Abner calls him, who mustn't be pushed too far. We're all kan-ya-ma-kan around here, and the only real thing about us is the pain we bring.

The sight of the car, or maybe the sight of my face, catches Aish mid-yawn in front of his tin-built café, but I don't have time for him. I park in the middle of the road, at the foot of Khilmi's hill, run up the gravel path, fall down, and pick myself up again, scared now, chilled with fear, mustn't think about what I have to tell him, blurt out the terrible words. The bend in the path so soon, and the grape bower, and the mouth of the cave, and nearby, inscribed on the chalky hillside, the incongruous pistachio-colored Arabic script that screams at me khayen, "traitor," and here he is, here's Khilmi, sitting on his stool, leaning back against the lemon tree, the transistor radio around his neck singing to him softly, and now he sees me.

And we fly at each other, with the violent force of physical knowledge. And Khilmi asks me, beseeches in terror, Yazdi? Yes, I nod, because I can't talk. His one seeing eye nearly pops out, and a thick blue vein winds up his other eyelid. Gasping for breath he says, He was here yesterday morning and I told him not to go. And in bewilderment he adds, Why did he disobey me?

He stumbles back till he bumps into the stool, and drops limplydown upon it. Wearing his robe of Cyprus silk, with his hard little hump, his black beret pushed down over his forehead, and his furrowed yellow face, he looks like some huge colorful insect drying in the sun.

And he groans. Ripping me right down the middle. No, that's no groan, that's a blind drill press. A frantic search for a vent to let out the pain.

THE SMILE OF THE LAMB. Copyright © 1983 by David Grossman. Translation copyright © 1990 by Betsy Rosenberg. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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