Paula Jacques’s novel, Light of My Eye, translated by Susan Cohen-Nicole (Holmes & Meier, $24.00) is a stunning evocation of 1950s Jewish-Arab Cairo told through the eyes of a young girl. Published in France in 1980 as Lumiere de l’Oeil, Light of My Eye is the first of Jacques’s eight novels to appear in English.
This book spotlights two crucial moments in Egyptian (and Jewish) history: the 1952 revolution that led to the abdication of the decadent King Farouk, reviled as a British puppet; and the 1956 Suez crisis, when Egyptian President Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and Israel, France, and England declared war against Egypt. Each time, Jews, along with the British and other “foreigners,” were targets of Arab nationalist rage — their synagogues and shops pillaged and burned by rioting mobs, their property seized and their citizenship revoked.
Mona Castro is the child of a prosperous Jewish Egyptian family struggling to respond to the “gong of misfortune” promising “death to the Jews.” Her family fears the worst, but postpones exile as long as possible. Mona’s father asks, “You want me to burn down my own house and wander around the world?” As a counterpoint, Mona’s communist cousin Bolissa brands the family as “pecuniary abusers” and advocates “union with the people.” The ideal, she tells Mona, is “in the morning when you get up, you don’t rejoice merely because you have nice furniture.”
The author, herself born in Cairo to a Sephardic family that fled Egypt in 1958, gives us sensory detail available only to someone who knows a place intimately: Cairo’s air is “scented with jasmine, dung, and gasoline,” its streets filled “with the cries of vendors at their tiny stands of melon seeds, figs, green soup, watermelons, sweet noodles, chick-peas, cigarettes, and individual razor blades.” Mona is a precocious, rebellious, imaginative child — “a collector of scars, falls, and faintings.” Affectionately termed “little bull” by her Arab governess, she is the only girl in her family, contesting the privileges of her two brothers, drawn to her charismatic father, in conflict with her sensuous mother, and appalled by an aunt’s negative reaction to the birth of a daughter. Her retrospective story is interspersed with occasional monologues spoken in the present by her now elderly mother. “All you have to write is a single sentence: they were chased out of paradise — and you’ve said it all,” the mother declares, and asks, “When are you finally going to get married?”
Jacques skillfully portrays young Mona’s relationship with an old man — a lonely, wounded, Ashkenazi Holocaust survivor who cultivates a lovingly erotic, imaginative liaison with the sensitive, lonely girl. Is Mona the man’s victim? Or does her experience with him enrich her? Should he be condemned? Why then does he evoke her protective tenderness? When boundary lines are drawn they violating the full truth of relationship: Ashkenazi and Sephardi, male and female, old and young, rich and poor, Jew and Muslim, European and Arab — we find all here in Jacques’s brilliant recreation of a world destroyed precisely by the interposition of hard boundaries between self and other.
Joyce Zonana is a writer and professor of literature at the City University of New York. Her memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey, was reviewed in Lilith (Spring 2009).
In Appassionata (Other Press, $25), Eva Hoffman tells the story of a short but searing love affair in the life of concert pianist Isabel Merton, an impassioned performer with little passion for real life. Adrift in space, she tours the concert halls of Europe, spending at most a few days in each city. She is also adrift in time, as her attention wanders from her present career to her past studies with the influential, ascetic mentor of her youth. She longs for a tie that will ground her, but settles for meaningless conversation with strangers on airplanes, acquaintances at receptions, and a few old friends along the way.
In the midst of this “longing and loneliness” arrives Anzor Islikhanov, a Chechen expatriate devoted to the cause of his country. As itinerant and alone as she is, he begs for an introduction after he hears her perform in Paris and then follows her to her next performance in Sofia. Two cities later, in Brussels, they consummate their relationship.
As Anzor’s path increasingly overlaps with Isabel’s in the concert halls, political receptions, and hotel rooms of Europe’s great cities, he reveals himself as no cool-headed diplomat, but a mentally unhinged exile with uncontrollable hatred for the Russians and a singular desire to exact revenge for his people’s oppression at any cost. Isabel is “porous,” Hoffman explains, with “St. Teresa tendencies…It is how she experiences the world, how she lets music enter.” It is for this reason that she continues her love affair with an enraged man who talks only of war, lashes out at the small talk of others, and constantly rebukes Isabel for being unable to understand his life’s pain. She tries to pull his behavior back within accepted norms, but he’s already too far gone. “So being angry is not nice, is that the idea?” he taunts her. “If you lose your rage, you lose…your self-respect.” Anzor takes up with Isabel for the pleasure he derives imagining what the Western Europeans who despise his people would think if they knew how intimate he was with the beautiful, serene pianist. Indeed, Anzor may be the centerpiece of Isabel’s existence for the months of their relationship, but his attention never shifts from Chechnya. When he is forced to choose, his decision has a dire impact on how Isabel makes music.
Formerly detached from real life and immersed entirely in music, now paralyzed by her inability to deal with the consequences of her personal choices, Isabel must summon a strength that she and her closest confidantes doubt she has if she is ever to return to performing. Hovering over her healing process is the ultimate question of whether someone as impressionable as she can ever safely encounter anyone without disturbing her art. Hoffman, author of the poignant memoirs Shtetl and Lost in Translation, meditates on what kind of personality is required to produce art, and what responsibility an individual has to engage politically in the world.
Tammy Hepps is a software developer living in New York City.
Aysha Silvermintz, the heroine of Rachel DeWoskin’s debut novel Repeat After Me (Overlook, $23.95), is just barely hanging on. Abandoned by her father in the wake of her parents’ messy divorce, she suffered a nervous breakdown in college and now, at 22, is only tentatively putting the fragile pieces of her life into some semblance of order again. She teaches English to foreign students in New York City, where communicating the rhythm and cadence of her mother tongue to those who are strangers enables her to feel a little less like a stranger herself. But when she meets Da Ge, an angry yet oddly appealing young Chinese student who walks into her classroom, Aysha finds herself drawn to his confusion and his sorrow, twin mirrors, it seems, for her own. Thus begins their improbable story, one that includes a hasty marriage of convenience suggested by Da Ge, in pursuit of his green card. What begins as convenience, though, quickly turns to lust and ultimately to love:
I could feel the muscles in Da Ge’s back, the pulse in his neck where I pressed my open mouth. He smelled like shampoo and newsprint. He had brought the city inside my apartment with him; the skin on his face was still cool from the night. When his hips were moving against mine, and his breathing jagged and rough, he put his mouth over my ear. His voice was like heat, his words so clear I can still hear their edges. ‘I want you unbelievable bad,’ he said.
DeWoskin, who spent several years living and working in China and who is the author of the acclaimed memoir Foreign Babes in Beijing, renders this doomed romance with dexterity and grace. She directs the story back and forth between Beijing and New York, past and present; the two separate strands draw closer and closer together, until they are interwoven into one seamless whole.
In the end, Aysha’s longing for Da Ge cannot save him from the past that haunts him, a past in which the personal and political collide in a cruel and, finally, catastrophic way. Her attempt, though, to bridge the gap that divides them with the tender force of her love breathes fresh and palpable life into this highly original and impressive fictional debut. Read it and weep.
Yona Zeldis McDonough is Lilith’s fiction editor and the author of Breaking The Bank, out from Pocket in September