Israeli author Eshkol Nevo’s novel in three parts explores yearning and betrayal

With the passing of Meir Shalev this year and A.B. Yehoshua last year, few stellar writers remain from the generations that created and grew up alongside the State of Israel and formed Israeli literature as we know it.

For those of us who engage with Israel largely through its culture, it’s important to know the literary landscape as it stands today, beyond the shadow cast by the nation’s formative authors.

Among the most prominent contemporary writers is Eshkol Nevo, born in 1971, and named after his grandfather, former Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. His 2004 debut, “Homesick,” may be my favorite Israeli novel of the 21st century, signaling Nevo’s propensity for psychological insight through the exploration of everyday lives.

Nevo’s most recent book, “Inside Information,” is structured unconventionally, as a novel composed of three novellas. These novellas are linked by small plot intersections, but much more by their larger themes of yearning, betrayal and the complexities of both romantic and familial relationships.

In “Death Road,” recently divorced percussionist Omri is spending time in Bolivia when he comes across a couple of fellow Israelis, who are on their honeymoon. Omri experiences an unexpectedly intimate moment with the woman, and their entanglement becomes increasingly complicated in the aftermath of her husband’s fatal bicycle accident.

In “Family History” an accomplished physician, Dr. Caro, has taken it upon himself to serve as a source of support to Liat Ben Abu, a young doctor doing her residency at his hospital. Their relationship ends abruptly when a seemingly inadvertent action is interpreted as sexual misconduct. Suddenly at the center of intrigue, Dr. Caro must convince others, as well as himself, that his closeness with Dr. Ben Abu was motivated by paternal and professional instincts, rather than sexual desire.

In “A Man Walks into an Orchard,” Chelli, an Argentinean-born mother of two, has spent months searching for her husband Ofer, who disappeared without a trace during one of their weekly rural walks. Resisting the conclusion that Ofer is dead, she follows every lead in hopes of determining his whereabouts. This quest includes discovering parts of his life that were hidden from her, as well as attempting to decipher the 99 short writings he left on his blog, each composed of 100 words.

This is one way Nevo is pushing us to think about storytelling differently: It’s not simply a case of ‘unreliable’ narrators, but of narrators being very human.

This final story explicitly references a well-known but strikingly brief account in the Talmud of four great rabbis who ventured into pardes (meaning both “orchard” and “paradise”), with each of them experiencing a radically different consequence.

Each of these sections is related in the first person, and the reader learns quickly to be attentive to the narrators themselves — Omri, Dr. Caro, and Chelli — and the emotional baggage they bring to their situations. Each has experienced the loss of a life partner, one to divorce, one to death, one to mysterious disappearance. And Dr. Caro has suffered an additional loss, as both of his adult children have chosen to live abroad. Their depictions of the dramas in which they find themselves enmeshed are informed by the experiences that have brought them to this moment. I think this is one way Nevo is pushing us to think about storytelling differently: It’s not simply a case of “unreliable” narrators, but of narrators being very human.

The book begins with the line, “My lawyer said that even if we decide to lie in court, we should be sure about the truth.” What follows teaches us that we cannot be sure of much. What we see and report as true is often determined by what we need to be true, according to our circumstances.

Given that all three novellas involve events with legal implications, it is striking that there is little conventional resolution offered. We as readers tend to like to see things repaired — or, if not, at least to know exactly what happened (as when Hercule Poirot offers his explanation at the conclusion of an Agatha Christie novel). But Nevo appears intent not to solve the cases he presents but, rather, to sustain the mystery in them. This can perhaps be less satisfying when putting the book down, but more satisfying when thinking about our own lives, which don’t often conform to tidy plotlines.

If the issues in the novel are universal in nature, the setting is specifically Israeli. Place, background (a number of characters have left their Orthodox upbringing), and music figure prominently, as Nevo is writing primarily for Israelis, with a shared cultural language that can sometimes leave the non-Israeli reader at a disadvantage.

For example, we get multiple references to a verse of a David Broza song, with an assurance from the narrator of the final story that the chorus “would be dangerous for me to hear now.” While the Israeli reader may be expected to know the words of the chorus, the average American reader has no clue.

But that’s the inevitable bit of loss in reading across culture — missing some of the “inside information.” In this sense, although the original Hebrew title was “A Man Enters an Orchard,” the title of the English version is fitting. And just as it’s hard to read across national boundaries as an outsider, we are not necessarily any better at reading the people sitting across the table from us.

How much do we really know about their internal worlds, and how well do we understand ourselves as actors in their lives? Nevo gives few answers, but he helps us ask the questions.

“Inside Information” by Eshkol Nevo (368 pages, Other Press)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.