She would take the money. But not only the money. The people here needed a doctor.
~~here be a couple of spoilers~~
The synopsis of Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s second novel, Waking Lions, is like the premise for a movie: Eitan Green, an Israeli doctor exiled to a provincial hospital for whistle-blowing, leaves work one night. Exhausted and demoralised, instead of going home, he drives his SUV out into the sand dunes around Beersheba. Speeding on the deserted roads, he hits an Eritrean man walking along the roadside, but instead of calling an ambulance or the police, he leaves him to die. Why? He’s afraid for his job, of course; he fears for the comfortable life he’s built for himself, his wife Liat, a police detective, and their two little boys. But it’s not that simple, either: the man is an illegal immigrant, an African, totally alien to him. He can’t bring himself to think of what he’s done as a real crime. He drives home, goes to sleep next to Liat. The next morning, when no one else is home, there’s a knock on the door. It’s the dead man’s wife. She was there last night, although he didn’t see her. Her name is Sirkit, and she wants something from him in exchange for her silence.
She wants him to work. So he does, spending his days on long shifts in the Soroka hospital and his nights in a garage near Tlalim with a rusty table to operate on and only the most rudimentary instruments and drugs. And then Liat gets assigned the hit-and-run case. Her colleagues think they’ve cracked it within a few weeks, blaming an Arab boy, but Liat’s pretty sure it wasn’t him, and when a girl from his village steps forward to be his alibi, she’s sure of it.
This isn’t a hopeful book. The strapline on the cover asks, “How do you know what you’re capable of?”, and Gundar-Goshen’s position, pretty clearly, is that you don’t; you can’t. Eitan is a doctor, an occupation that is defined by its goodness. Doctors save lives, mitigate pain, do their best to help. But doctoring is compromised from the start of the book: Eitan is only in Beersheba because he insisted on confronting a colleague and former professor, the eminent Dr. Zakai, about his habit of accepting large bribes from patients’ families. Nothing is done about Zakai’s corruption, but Eitan is reassigned from glamorous Tel Aviv to dead-end Beersheba. Zakai reappears throughout the book in Eitan’s memories of him as a guiding light and mentor. We hear bits and pieces of his lectures, the received wisdom passed down from senior doctors to trainees. His overwhelming character trait, perhaps unsurprisingly, seems to be arrogance.
That arrogance is shared by Eitan himself. What makes this book so incendiary, and such an emotional challenge for a reader, is that Eitan constantly misses opportunities to expand his understanding. He is narrow in his comprehension of Sirkit, for whom he feels an obsessive, exoticizing lust that makes for pretty uncomfortable reading. He is narrow in his comprehension of the Africans who come to the garage for treatment. He is narrow in his obliviousness to Liat’s struggle against disgusting levels of misogyny and racism at work; he fails to understand that his own army buddies speak about women and Arabs in the same way that Liat’s colleagues do, that he’s no better. It is not fun to spend time in his head. It’s illuminating, but it’s also infuriating.
Here he is, for instance, on Semar, a woman whom he’s just assisted in giving birth. Her baby is the result of a rape perpetrated on her by her Israeli employer at a roadside restaurant; the rapist, as a result of plot machinations, has just turned up at the garage and been stabbed by Sirkit:
The thought of the rape nauseated him, but he was honest enough to admit that the nausea he felt was only indirectly related to Semar. First and foremost, he thought of himself. He wasn’t supposed to see it. He wasn’t supposed to know about it. …It was the same feeling he had when he went into a public bathroom and saw that someone had defecated and not flushed the toilet… What that man had done to Semar was horrible, but it wasn’t Eitan’s shit.
Much like certain passages from Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare, this reminded me of Orange Is the New Black. People in that show who are lucky enough to be able to ignore the shit become enraged when they’re forced to confront it. They’re happy enough, as Eitan is, to elect people who assure them that the shit will be dealt with. But engaging with it themselves is too much, too hard, unfair, and, moreover, it upsets the hierarchy. This is not the sort of thing a man like Eitan is meant to see. This is not how his world works, and his world is the only world there is.
There is a plot turn—it’s not quite a twist—about four-fifths of the way through the book which stretches credulity if you think about it too hard, but it has the tremendous advantage of sharpening Sirkit’s character for us. Is she a “good” person? Not in the way that Eitan is “good”. She demands money from the immigrant community before she’ll bring them to the garage; she refuses a Sudanese woman treatment because she can’t pay; she feared and hated her husband, the man Eitan killed, although she had good reasons to. There’s a level of steely indifference in Sirkit that makes her one of the novel’s greatest assets. She thinks of how Eitan must think of her: mopping floors, suffering. The truth is that suffering comprises only a part of Sirkit’s life. She’s also a skilled nurse, good enough to train as a doctor (Eitan is genuinely shocked to realize that she could be just as good as him. He doesn’t think of an Eritrean immigrant woman as the kind of creature that is capable in that way. It’s not that he thinks she can’t do it; it doesn’t occur to him that she can, any more than he would expect the ability of a goat.) And she is a survivor. And she is ruthless. Is she a “good” person? Who cares? She’s alive, and she commands respect.
But this isn’t, as I said before, a hopeful book. It’s so unusual to get to the end of a literary novel without some form of emotional closure, some kind of redemption, that when I got to the end of this one and found that was exactly what we were dealing with, it came as a real surprise. For (here is the biggest spoiler, probably) nothing happens to Eitan. No one ever finds out the full truth: not Liat, not his colleagues, not the rest of the police force. He is never discovered. And the saddest thing is that, even as I read the final page with surprise, I knew that I should not be surprised. Nothing about Eitan’s reprieve from the legal repercussions of his crime is surprising. It makes the novel’s ending lines, so calm and tranquil in their rhythms, look more like a cry of bitter rage:
How beautiful the earth is when it moves properly. How pleasant to move with it. To forget that any other movement ever existed. That a different movement is even possible.
It’s our privilege to be able to forget. Eitan’s, and mine. And yours. And Gundar-Goshen, in this book, is telling us all to go fuck ourselves for that. It isn’t the kind of book you can love. But that’s the point.
Many thanks to Tabitha Pelly at Pushkin Press for the review copy. Waking Lions will be published in paperback in the UK on 1 September.