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"Savagely funny....Never was Jewish wit put to better or more urgent use."—Chicago Tribune, a Favorite Book of 2001
Blind, homosexual, Russian émigré speechwriter Nathan Kazakov has enough problems even before his left ear is obliterated by a bullet presumably meant for the Israeli prime minister. Determined to solve the mystery, Nathan begins exploring a web of conspiracies involving messianic orthodox settlers, Arab terrorists, and the Israeli secret service. Was the bullet intended for Nathan after all? or ...
"Savagely funny....Never was Jewish wit put to better or more urgent use."—Chicago Tribune, a Favorite Book of 2001
Blind, homosexual, Russian émigré speechwriter Nathan Kazakov has enough problems even before his left ear is obliterated by a bullet presumably meant for the Israeli prime minister. Determined to solve the mystery, Nathan begins exploring a web of conspiracies involving messianic orthodox settlers, Arab terrorists, and the Israeli secret service. Was the bullet intended for Nathan after all? or perhaps for the prime minister's son Gabriel, an archaeologist who shuns his father's politics? One trail leads to Leviticus, another beneath the Temple Mount. Strange Fire is "a stunning literary achievement" (Miami Herald) fueled by Bukiet's singular imagination. A Washington Post Book World 2001 Rave, a Chicago Tribune Favorite Book of the Year, and a Booklist Editors' Choice. "Corrupt, violent, zigzagging atmosphere...a raucous vituperative attack on every kind of political hypocrisy."—Los Angeles Times Book Review
Here's Simon in public: "Of course the Palestinians are people. Of course they have mothers and grandmothers whose food they love, whose kitchens they remember. Of course they want homes and schools ..."
It's nicely composed if I do say so myself, the alliteration, the parallel structures, but it's Simon who puts it over. No other mouth, from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, from Eilat to the Golan—or beyond, make no mistake, Simon's as comfortable in the U.N. as the Knesset—has the same potent bass that hardly requires a microphone to fill a fund-raising parlor or a vast public hall or a nation. In transit from the elaborate sequence of raised bumps on the scroll that emerges from my special Braille typewriter to the growling caress he imparts to them, the words are transformed. Now, rolling over the multitude, they convey a deep, humanitarian feeling of sorrowful regret at the pass we've come to. "Homes and schools," he repeats. "Homes and schools and hospitals...." He takes the next step as if one component of civilized life after another is occurring to him as he speaks.
Is that a tear welling at the inside corner of Simon's eye? The glittering emerald orb can fix the object of its contemplation with any emotion he desires on a scale from compassionate understanding to enraged rectitude like a hammer fixes a nail. You can torque to the left or right, but there's no escape.
"Homes and schools and hospitals and police stations of their own," he echoes himself, moving inexorably to the conclusion that I alone, of allpresent here today, anticipate. Author! Author!
"Homes and schools and hospitals and police stations of their own ..." Simon repeats the theme one last time, adds, "and ..." and then concludes, "armies."
Even before that last word slams the cymbals loud enough to raise the dead, the meaning is clear.
Part of the trick is language. The man knows his syntax. Note that "the Palestinians" he commences with turns to "they" and in the motion from proper noun to pronoun two things occur. First, we're at a tinier remove once a name is withheld. No longer specific, they become a category, easier to displace or remove than a named entity.
And then, think, who are they? They're the ones with mothers and grandmothers. But in reality, some of them are mothers and grandmothers. They have sons and grandsons. But the only Palestinians Simon has evoked are youthful, rock-strong in short pants and T-shirts with violent slogans spray-painted across their scrawny chests, smelling of the smoke of burning rubber. Just imagine them in uniform.
Thus slyly in his most ostensibly humanistic speech of the year, delivered to a skeptical audience at Rabin Square—and ah, to hear him how Simon misses Yitzhak, the fond tales he tells about the "old soldier's" great courage and smoking habits—he's entirely disarmed the crowd and prepositionally rearmed them with the single word there was no need to mention: "but."
Simon's a genius.
I watch as well as I can. Simon is only a shadow to me. Yet in a more profound way, I perceive him more clearly than the rest of the audience. He appears full-bodied to them, even robust with his volleyball muscles and semi-public, semi-private sexual appetites, whereas my flawed vision detects his secret. Even if Simon literally has a body, that body is missing a heart. He is hollow. Just because I can't see him does not mean that I can't know him.
Question: What does Simon know about me?
Answer: That I'm smart, that I despise him and everything he stands for, and that I am, despite my evident inadequacies, dangerous.
Second question: Why does he keep me around?
Second answer: Because I'm useful.
"What he means"—I am already composing my own speech to the assembled gentlefolk of the fourth estate—"is that in a perfect world, armies would not be necessary."
Needless to say, Israel exists in an imperfect world. Therefore we must work and strive and struggle—maybe I'll leave the oratory out of my own press conference and let Simon, my master and puppet, mouth those nice phrases himself on a later occasion. Oh, hell, the fountain is broken, the pump spouts and spouts, replenishing its basin endlessly. Words flow from me in lieu of impressions.
"Work and strive and struggle to attain that," I say to the journalists who have gathered in the municipal auditorium lobby as the rally outside breaks up and people straggle off to find their cars and go to the beach. It's a warm Sunday in the pre-Utopian era.
I continue to gloss Simon's words—they ceased to be my words the moment he spoke them—leaving implicit the idea that until the new millennium, the big three with three zeros, arrives nearly a thousand years from now, we must maintain certain stringent controls on other people's powers. To do this, we must keep our army and inhibit theirs. We must also continue to build settlements and protect territories, and above all, we must keep in mind the one major goal that all lesser goals must serve: Elect Simon.
"How are the polls?" A smooth tenor from the back of the room cuts through the babble like a sailboat slicing the waves on Lake Kinneret. Outside, the crowd is dispersing, but here the second part of the show is just commencing.
In the military terms Simon loves to use, every press conference is a "debriefing," because indeed every speech is a "maneuver." Amid the inner circle, we are constantly "reconnoitering" for information or "outflanking" the perennial Labor opponent, Weiner, at least when we succeed, as apparently we have so splendidly today. Simon loves the double meaning of the word "campaign."
But now, with a voice like melted butter, an unexpected emissary from the enemy camp has infiltrated our domain. A silence fills the room, not merely because of the question that's on everyone's mind and no one's lips, but because of the identity of the questioner. No one is attending me on the platform anymore. Even Goldie's ears are perked from her spot on the floor next to my left foot. Pencils are poised, the scratching sound that usually accompanies my deliveries held in abeyance. We have a visitor and he wants to know about the polls.
"Holding up nicely, Gabriel," I respond.
"We can always hope," he replies, leaving—deliberately?—uncertain whether he hopes the polls will hold up or collapse.
"You'll stick around for photographs," I say, "I hope."
"Only if you take them."
My whole world is vagueness and blur, my only reality auditory. Stunned by the cruelty of the comment, I am at a loss to respond. Just two people can shiver my heart like this, Simon ben Levi and Gabriel ben Simon ben Levi. The first knows this and uses his power when he wishes; the latter has only learned it this minute as he must perceive the pain I cannot conceal on my misshapen face. Though Gabriel may be the only person in Israel who hates Simon more than I do, they are made of the same stuff.
Then I hear the shame in his voice. "I'm sorry. That was uncalled-for."
It's as if an oak tree has dropped a seed and given birth to an olive tree. Gabriel is as strong as Simon, but he is different. I must keep him talking, so that I can keep listening to the voice that comes from the blurred face. I know he is beautiful, because I am told so. Everyone in Israel has seen his image on the front page of Ha-Aretz, posing for the camera in front of some ancient ruin he has uncovered, while I have had to remain satisfied with the extract of the text offered in the bumpy edition for the blind. It's the idea of Gabriel ben Levi's beauty rather than the thing itself that must satisfy me.
Simon enters the room in a bustle of advance men and flacks and the perfume of Serena Jacobi on a current from the open door, all flushed with the success of his performance. In a second, he detects the atmosphere, glances around to discover its cause, and, unscripted, says, "Gabi."
Immediately Gabriel forgets that I am alive. If he gives me any thought at all later on tonight, it may be to wonder how a creature as disfigured as his father's lead writer is capable of the appearance of pain. Damn your eyes.
As the two approach each other, the photographers' fingers tense, as avid to record this handshake as they were for the old soldier's clasp of Arafat's stubby, nicotine-stained fingers on the White House lawn years ago.
Simon steps forward, out from his claque, his mind a whir of machination. Simon needs Gabi's support. Despite my evasive reply to Gabi's question, Simon is wavering in the polls. One moment of reconciliation, one photograph of a handshake—or better yet, a bear hug—will go further toward overcoming Weiner than any number of speeches. Simon is charging now; he will have this moment whether the ambivalent son wishes to give it to him or not.
And another figure emerges from the crowd. He's a dark and writhing coil of compressed energy. A long coat, frayed at the edges, a hat tipped askew even before he's knocked to the floor, as if the frenzy of thought has burst through his scalp.
We've seen this before, not a hundred yards from here.
Time speeds up for everyone in the room, but it slows down for me. I can feel the second hand of a clock sweeping as slowly as the oar of a rowboat through the water. I can pull an imaginary trigger twice before the real one goes off.
From then on it's pandemonium. I spin around like a top in a spray of red, Simon's bodyguards pounce on the would-be assassin, and the photographers are beside themselves. One lucky political paparazzo's image will be chosen for the front page of the New York Times and the cover of Time magazine and Der Spiegel and Le Monde and the royalties will gush. That's part of the joy of the Israel beat. In the marketplace of news, Israel is always in demand.
For a second, I believe that my head has blown off as I lay in a puddle of blood that smears my preimpaired vision. Simon is already out of the room, hustled by a phalanx of guards, just in case there's a second gun. He's out of the building, in a helicopter tearing the sky back to Jerusalem—above the chaos, I can hear the rotors—where he will address an even larger convocation of journalists. Here it was the political beat followers; there it will be A.P., UPI, the international corps ripping their hair out because they chose to cover Weiner's peace conference rather than Simon's event—with words not written by me. If I'm dead, it's the opportunity of a lifetime for some young speechwriter. Simon may never have the benefit of my words again. What a loss.
Nobody is allowed to leave the room. Shin Bet has cordoned off the premises, while Shin Bet's version of Nathan Kazakov is already writing the tortured explanation of how they allowed this to happen again. I don't envy that task. They should have known: lightning does strike twice. Heads will roll.
Finally, somebody notices me. I can smell the dust of countless ages—it's in his pores after a decade in the desert—mingled with the sweat of today. Only one person smells like that. He lifts my head, and immediately his fingers are covered with my blood. "Hey," he whispers. At least it sounds like he's whispering, because all the sounds in the room are suddenly so far away. "Are you okay?"
"I've been better," I answer, lying once again. Lying with my head on his lap, I've never felt better in my life.
"Hold on. An ambulance is on the way."
I'm sure of that. One thing we're good at is rapid response. A space is cleared around me, but then again, I'm used to a space around me. No one likes to stand next to me at parties.
"You'll be all right," Gabriel ben Levi reassures me.
"Yeah," I answer. "Just like Lebanon."
The next thing I know I'm on a stretcher, harsh woven canvas like sandpaper underneath me, padded straps keeping me from bouncing off the damn thing as the attendants rush us to the curb, blood in my nose, and the bulbs keep flashing. After Simon's exit and the shooter's apprehension, I'm the best image they've got. Now if they can only capture the drama while avoiding the ugly, twisted lines of the victim's face, they've done their job. Not an easy job; it's a delicate balance between sympathy and disgust.
Excerpted from Strange Fire by Melvin Jules Bukiet. Copyright © 2001 by Melvin Jules Bukiet. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 2001 Wislawa Szymborska.
Translation copyright © 2001 Joanna Trzeciak. All rights reserved.