In the final pages of Orly Castel-Bloom’s novel “Human Parts,” a disabled and unemployed cab driver named Boaz Beit-Halahmi drives from his home in a Ramle slum to a medical clinic in Jerusalem. After months of ennui and privation, he has decided to seek a cure that might let him start supporting his household again. No sooner does he turn on the car radio, though, than he hears the report of a suicide bombing in Hadera, and his attention starts to drift to the matsav, the situation. “[H]e scolded himself for being sucked into worries about the State of Israel again,” Castel-Bloom writes, “instead of worrying about the fate of his family and his children.”
Castel-Bloom’s achievement in this extraordinary book is to worry about both the personal and the political, the individual and the state. The very title of this novel makes clear those aspirations, for the phrase “human parts” is a grim pun that refers both to the bloody result of suicide bombings and to the affectingly broken individuals whom Castel-Bloom places against such a backdrop. Not only has she written the first work of fiction to depict Israel during the Al-Aqsa Intifada; she has written one that will surely stand the test of time, because it resists any temptation to be preachy or obvious or didactic.
For an American reader to fully appreciate Castel-Bloom’s accomplishment in “Human Parts,” one might think back to Robert Altman’s masterful film “Nashville,” with its deftly interwoven array of characters, all of them functioning oblivious to a political assassin in their midst. Similarly, Castel-Bloom introduces an ensemble cast of Israelis whose lives graze against one another’s in fleeting, coincidental ways, as all the while terrorism hovers like a kind of an ambient radiation.
Boaz’s wife, Kati Beit-Halahmi, is a Kurdish immigrant working as a housing-project janitor who falls into a strange, abrupt fame when her family is featured on television as the emblem of Israeli poverty. Tasaro Tasama, an Ethiopian Jew, parlays her exotic beauty into a modeling career. Her ambivalent boyfriend, Adir Bergson, manages both a portfolio of real-estate holdings and the lingering affections of his ex-lover, a single mother named Iris Ventura.
Castel-Bloom lavishes her narrative attention on the crushed hopes and petty cruelties of these characters — the way Adir strings Tasaro along rather than committing to an interracial marriage, the money and dreams that Kati invests in taking cosmetology classes, the lengths of humiliation and even crime to which Iris turns to get out of debt. Very much in the manner of the American writer T.C. Boyle in such novels as “World’s End” and “The Tortilla Curtain,” Castel-Bloom brings a bemused empathy to these flawed creatures mucking up their lives. Their imperfections, she rightly understands, are what make the reader care so deeply about them.
With two complementary methods, Castel-Bloom establishes the larger context of an embattled, traumatized nation. In the opening pages of “Human Parts,” she reaches into her familiar repertoire of magic realism to depict an Israel afflicted by hail, floods, ice floes, raindrops “the size of olives” and an epidemic of the “Saudi flu.” For most of the novel, though, she works in a more naturalistic vein, using the subtlest of brushstrokes to convey the pervasive danger and recurrent death. The intifada intrudes on her characters in the form of a television newscast during a marital argument about groceries, a headline in a day-old newspaper discarded at a laundromat, a mother’s passing comment, “Just let’s hope there aren’t any bombs, that they don’t ruin Purim.”
Danger does not ennoble Castel-Bloom’s people; she is too astute a student of human nature for that. Rather, Kati cries and mopes when the Israeli president cancels a photo-op at her impoverished home because he has too many shiva calls that day. When Adir’s sister dies of the Saudi flu rather than in a terrorist attack, he grouses that “he wouldn’t be able to write anything dramatic in the death notice, such as May the Lord Avenge Her Blood.” Just as much as valor or sacrifice, “Human Parts” indelibly reminds us, self-absorption is part of the human equation.
In nine previous works of fiction, including the widely translated “Dolly City,” Castel-Bloom has amply demonstrated her gifts for mordant humor and precise observation. But until “Human Parts,” she had put those talents in the service of depicting only private life. She formed part of a generation of Israeli writers who deliberately and defiantly stood apart from such socially conscious and politically engaged forebears as Amos Oz, focusing instead on domesticity and its discontents.
Indeed, the Israel of “Human Parts” is an Americanized, consumerist country, linked by cable television to Discovery Channel, Ricki Lake’s talk show and Spanish-language telenovelas. Wandering through North Tel Aviv in search of her cosmetology teacher’s apartment, Kati wonders for whom Ezekiel and Micah streets were named. “What did they do so that everybody knows them?” she asks.
The communal ideal fares no better than the Bible. “Bergson had never understood this unification that took place between people in times of trouble,” Castel-Bloom writes at one point. “He suspected it of being shallow and external. He thought that evolution was actually producing people now who were not at all interested in uniting, like himself.”
Yet, paradoxically, it is Castel-Bloom’s acute attention to the internal, the quotidian, that transforms “Human Parts” into such a penetrating and moving social novel. Her community is not whole cloth, but a mosaic, the sum of its shards. Her survivors are heroes not because they are heroic, but because they survive, to be their fallible selves one more day.
Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author most recently of “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry” (Simon & Schuster, 2000).
By Orly Castel-Bloom, translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
David R. Godine, 249 pages, $24.95.
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