When Good People Do Very Bad Things
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen Explores Morality Under Pressure in Waking Lions
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, born in Israel in 1982, holds an MA in Clinical Psychology from Tel Aviv University and has written numerous award-winning screenplays. Her first novel One Night, Markovitch won the Sapir Prize for best debut. Her new novel, Waking Lions, gazes unstintingly at guilt, survival, shame, and desire in the wake of a hit-and-run accident on the outskirts of Beersheba, Israel. Dr. Eitan Green is exhausted after a long hospital shift and fails to stop after he hits an Eritrean migrant worker. When that man’s wife, Sirkit, approaches him with a deal, Green enters an ourobouros of darkness that threatens his happy family life. Meanwhile, his police-detective wife Liat is assigned to the hit-and-run case, seeming to come closer and closer to discovering her husband’s secret.
I interviewed Gundar-Goshen via email from her home in Tel Aviv.
Bethanne Patrick: In Waking Lions, your protagonist Eitan Green is an avatar of a certain kind of Israeli man: Well-trained, confident to the point of arrogance, walking a prescribed path. Tell me about how those qualities lead him to stray from that path.
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen: Eitan thinks of himself as “a good man.” He’s a physician, he saves lives, he votes for the liberal party. Like most of us, he has a very solid concept of what kind of person he is—a good guy. But we never really know who we are until the moment we face a hard decision. If Eitan was asked during a dinner with friends, “Do you think you’d be able to hit someone and leave him on the side of the road?” he’d probably say no. But when he does it—hitting an unnamed refugee with his car after a long hospital shift—he’s facing the decision, and he makes that choice. In a way, his confidence in being “a good Israeli guy” is a sort of hubris, and he’s punished for that.
The novel also has a political dimension. A central question of the book is a provocative one: Would Eitan have fled the scene if he hadn’t hit an illegal immigrant but an Israeli? Or, more abstractly: In our minds, what’s the worth of an illegal immigrant’s life?
BP: Eitan is married to Liat, a police detective and the mother of his two little boys. She likes things very, very, very neat, uncluttered. Could you explain a bit about her personality?
AGG: Being a police detective, Liat knows that the world is a messed up place. And her way of making order in a messed up place is being very neat. She organizes and cleans so that she won’t feel the chaos outside, and also, to avoid the chaos inside. I remember my own grandmother, each time she suffered a loss, coping through cleaning the entire house. It is as if domestic objects are the objects of one’s thoughts, and by putting them into place, the whole world finds its right place as well.
It always amazed me how easily people living in the same house become strangers. Liat wants her house to be mystery-free, completely known to her. That’s not just because of her job in the police, but also because of her own childhood, seeing the mess her dad left after leaving her mom. I was interested in the strangeness that lies in the most familiar places—the idea that you can share a bed with someone, recognize every inch of his body even with your eyes closed, and still not know what’s he’s dreaming about.
BP: Without giving too much away, Eitan winds up involved with a community of refugees from Eritrea. Both Israelis and Eritreans find each other difficult to decipher, correct? Could you talk about why that is?
AGG: After hitting the refugee, Eitan flees the scene and tries to return to his safe life. But the refugee’s wife finds him and blackmails him. He’s stunned by her, because he never bothered to look at the refugees around him before. They are the invisible people in Israeli society. And she is puzzled by him as well. It’s the first time she has power over a white man, and the opportunity to look at him with eyes wide open.
As a refugee, Sirkit is one of these people who witness everything we do without our giving her presence any attention. I wonder how many times I have sat in restaurants, kissing or arguing or having intimate conversations, while illegal immigrants were cleaning my table, completely ignored. I wanted to investigate what happens when those who are unnoticed notice something that changes the balance.
BP: Many Americans probably don’t realize that Israel has refugee communities, just like Italy and Germany do. What effects do these groups have on Israeli society? How is the Israeli government dealing with refugees?
AGG: About 70,000 to 100,000 people have illegally entered Israel seeking refuge in the last ten years. For a small country, these are large numbers. They come through the desert, walking the same route that the biblical Israelis walked on the exodus from Egypt. This mythological journey of Hebrew refugees is now an actual journey of African refugees, longing for the Promised Land. Once in Israel, many of them are arrested and put in an open detention center. It’s open—but in the heart of the desert. Nowhere much to go. They can’t work or study regularly or have normal lives. In the last few years, the detention centers and other actions of the right-wing government have made many of them leave Israel, and made fewer people try and come. The government considers this to be a good thing.
BP: Your novel is set in a city called Beersheba, a university town. How else does the location of your story affect what happens?
AGG: Waking Lions is set in the Negev, the Israeli desert. It’s the backyard of Israel, where poverty and crime are found in higher rates than in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. But the desert is not just geographically distant, it’s also psychologically distant. We don’t think of the Bedouins or the African refugees—they’re in the back of our minds. Aside from being a geographical and social periphery, the desert is also a metaphor for those areas in our conscious mind that are untouched, suppressed, that we never dare to wonder about. Both Eitan and Liat find themselves facing aspects of their own souls that they never faced before.
BP: In several sections of this book you dive deeply into the relationships between parents and children. At one point, you talk about the fact that no matter what else happens, Liat’s youngest boy, Yaheli, only really wants his mother there to stir his cocoa. Do people who have stable childhoods “grow out” of that?
AGG: I don’t think they necessarily need to “grow out” of it. Perhaps there’s something comforting in knowing that, no matter what happens, there’s always a parent there waiting to stir your tea exactly as you take it. But I hope that with time, the love and stability you get from your parents enables you to stir their tea for them once in a while, to acknowledge them as people who have their own needs and wishes.
BP: I ask the former question because another character, Sirkit, has a distinctly different and upsetting childhood. Could you talk about how her personality developed from her background?
AGG: When I wrote Sirkit, the refugee woman, I thought of a sentence I heard from a Holocaust survivor: “The best of us died in the death-camps. You had to be a son-of-a-bitch to stay alive.” We usually think of refugees as saints, but one can’t stay a saint forever if one wants to stay alive. Sirkit wants to stay alive. More than that, she doesn’t want the life of a dog or a cow—she wants the life that Eitan has. She feels entitled to it. And when Eitan is surprised by her lack of compassion, he forgets that compassion is a privilege.
BP: You have a master’s degree in clinical psychology. Does this help you in building your characters and their interactions?
AGG: I think both psychology and writing demands that you be willing to leave your own skin for a while, and try to go into another person’s mind. As a psychologist, when you face a patient who has done things you morally disagree with—hit his children, for instance—you have to be able to try and understand his motivations. Otherwise you won’t be able to help him keep from doing it again. In everyday life, when we hear of someone doing something bad we just say “asshole” and move on. As a writer and as a psychologist, you don’t have this privilege. If someone is fantasizing about killing his landlord, you want to know why. And to do that, you have to find the place within yourself that’s capable of murder.
As a psychologist, I meet a lot of people, and what I like the most is that I’m always surprised. Whenever I have the arrogance to think I completely understand someone, I’m proved wrong within two sessions. Some people like to stare at the view, mountains lakes and so on. I like to stare at people, to see how they change right in front of your eyes, for example, to see this grumpy woman who pushed me in the supermarket suddenly soften when she notices her child waving. I like to look at people on the bus and ask myself how do they eat sushi, make love, fight with their parents, talk to their bosses.
However, I do try my best to keep writing and therapy separated. When you write a novel you are the master of the world you create. When you meet a patient you must never forget that this is another man’s story, he’s the narrator, and you’re just here to help him create a better narrative than the one he is captured in.
BP: Who are your favorite Israeli writers? What about writers from other countries? Are there any writers who have been big influences on your own work?
AGG: David Grossman is my favorite Israeli writer. He’s also a symbol of political involvement in Israeli society, and I admire him for his commitment to speaking out against the occupation. I also admire Elena Ferrante, Jorge Amado, Thomas Hardy, and Romain Gary—all combine irony with compassion in their writing.
BP: How did you research the medical scenes, especially those in the makeshift Eritrean “hospital?”
AGG: I had three doctor friends reading the manuscript, two from Beersheba hospital, and one who works with refugees for Doctors Without Borders. I asked them so many questions and took so much of their time that I’m afraid they won’t answer my calls any longer. It’s a good opportunity to say thank you to Dr. Ohad Bitan, Dr. Yael Grushka, and Dr. Daniel Grupel.
BP: There’s an amazing scene of childbirth, with a woman named Semar. So many women have to give birth in refugee camps with so little assistance. How did you decide on this scene, come to write it?
AGG: I thought about a moment of joy that Eitan and Sirkit can experience together. There’s nothing more powerful than assisting the arrival of a new life into the world. I was pregnant myself while working on Waking Lions, and perhaps it also made the scene more vivid.
BP: Another question about parents and children. When Liat spends a night at her mother’s house, it is clear that the two women have a very tough time communicating. Could you elaborate on their class differences and why they matter?
AGG: Liat is embarrassed by her mother, especially by her Mizrachi culture, which is often laughed about in Israel. Liat married an Ashkenazi doctor (equivalent in status to an American WASP) and she has a new family name, but she can’t escape who she is, or the color of her skin. When she visits her mother house she’s confronted with all the things she tried to escape. And, besides the class differences, there’s also the charged relationship between a mother and a daughter.
BP: What do you hope readers in the United States learn about Israel from this novel?
AGG: I prefer people to learn about themselves, rather than about “the Israeli people.” Whenever we read a novel written about a place very far away, we may think it’s about “them,” but it’s always about “us.” I wanted the readers to finish the book with this question: If it had happened to you—driving home to your family late at night, you hit an unnamed refugee, one that looks like 1,000 other people, like the cleaner in the supermarket, and no one would ever know—are you absolutely sure you wouldn’t flee?
Feature photo by Katharina Lutscher.