By her own account, Montreal resident Edeet Ravel has been fairly negligent about getting her writing into print. Which is why it amazed the Israeli-born author and former high-school teacher when the British publisher Headline found her letter in its slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts; the firm asked to see more than the five pages of a novel that she had sent and, almost immediately after she dispatched the full manuscript, accepted it for publication.
The book, “Ten Thousand Lovers,” which was released earlier this year in England and Canada, had an auspicious debut: It sold swiftly, republication rights were sold in six languages, the American publisher Perennial/HarperCollins released a paperback edition in the United States in September and Ravel inked a contract for a second novel. But the real icing on the cake came last week, when “Ten Thousand Lovers” was nominated for a Governor General’s award, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes, putting newcomer Ravel into competition with Margaret Atwood and three other authors. The winner of the $15,000 prize will be named on November 12.
Ravel has, to say the least, begun to reconsider her work, and she’s found herself taking second looks at the many other manuscripts she stuffed into drawers throughout her lifetime.
“I’ve written a lot over the years, but I never made a serious effort to get published,” she said. “Even this was not a serious effort. It was a miracle that it got published.”
A love story set primarily in Israel in the 1970s, “Ten Thousand Lovers” weaves a beguiling spell that is equal parts darkness and light. The story centers around the relationship between Lily, the first-person narrator, and Ami, a charming Israeli military official she meets while hitchhiking. But from the first sentence — “A long time ago, when I was twenty, I had a relationship with a man who was an interrogator” — the story is filled with dark undercurrents of the sort that are typical in modern Israeli fiction.
The idea for the book emerged from a conversation she had with a stranger who admitted to being a professional interrogator for the Israeli army. “I was stunned when he told me that,” she said. “I never knew that that could be a job. It opened up a whole new level of Israeli reality for me.”
While the focus never deviates from the love affair between the two main characters, the subjects of torture and brutality keep recurring. Although Ami repudiates the medieval methods utilized by some of his colleagues and refuses to use them on the Palestinian detainees that he interrogates, torture is still an integral part of his work environment. Though he tries to change things, even successfully switching careers, he can’t escape the consequences of his former connection to that inhumane milieu.
Ravel’s minimalist treatment of this ugly subject parallels the way Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld handles the horrors of the Holocaust: by secondary allusion, never by direct revelation. If she is writing about a dystopia — a society that elevates some of its most base and evil impulses into national institutions — she’s more subtle about it than other practitioners of the genre, including George Orwell, Anthony Burgess or Jacobo Timerman. Still, her prose rings with such verisimilitude that even Israel’s strongest defenders will be disturbed by its details.
Because art dictates that Lily and Ami must be denied a happy ending, suspense and foreboding cloud the novel and grow thicker by the page. Even as they marry and prepare to have a child, the reader knows that some misfortune awaits. Ravel says she put off writing the ending for as long as she could, and it’s clear that she cares deeply for her characters and for Israel. “There’s so much pain involved in being attached to Israel and watching all the wars and all the tragedy, and I think that it all came out at the end,” she said. “When I wrote the ending, I just couldn’t stop crying.”
She acknowledges that she modeled the character Lily largely upon herself: both were born on kibbutzim in Israel, both came to Canada at a young age with their parents, and both returned to Israel to attend university. (“I went to Israel to study English literature and I went to McGill University [in Montreal] to study Jewish studies,” Ravel said. “I did it all upside down.”)
In addition, both she and the fictional Lily have teenaged daughters, and both share a love for the Hebrew language and the biblical heritage of the Jewish people. In fact, the unwavering credibility and realistic tone of Lily’s narrative voice beg the question: How much of the story is autobiographical? Ravel doesn’t duck the question. Much of the prose came from the journals she’s kept over many years, she acknowledged, adding that she modeled Ami in part after her former husband, an Israeli, and used their real-life wedding as the basis for its novelistic counterpart. “But I didn’t marry an interrogator,” she said. “I married a pianist who was never in the army. He never even did basic training.”
A strong involvement with politics is another quality the author shares with Lily, but that’s only natural, since both are Israeli by temperament, if not by citizenship. “Canadians might find it strange that a couple who are going out and who are romantically involved keep discussing politics,” she said. “But in Israel that’s one of the topics people would discuss immediately, to see if they’re near each other on the political spectrum. It’s so much a part of life there.”
It’s clear from just a short conversation with Ravel, as it is from reading “Ten Thousand Lovers,” precisely where her politics lie. The amazing thing is, even if you are some distance away along the spectrum, it doesn’t seem to matter. Like a self-enclosed world, her book is a thing of integrity, true to itself and so deeply felt that it somehow manages to bridge the gap.