This is the text from the jury of the Bernstein Prize 2013, explaining why they have awarded the prize to The Hilltop:
Assaf Gavron has written one of the most important and interesting books of recent years. The Hilltop is Gavron’s fifth novel and his most major. In his unique way, Gavron has placed himself in the heart of the canonic Hebrew literature by creating a wide-ranging novel, which seeks to confront the fundamental questions of the State of Israel. His work deals in a deeply literary manner with the human face of these questions. In other words, this is a novel of great ideas. He uses a contemporary form – ironic, segmented, clip-like, seemingly “flat” and postmodern – to play the traditional role of the Israeli observer. But make no mistake: the current form of this traditional approach is a bold literary move. It allows literature to tell “our” story and in doing so lets us understand it, contemplate it, and even question it.
The “situation”, the one in which we are living, and about which we complain, is in a way the protagonist of the novel, and this situation is conveyed through the story of two orphan brothers who find themselves in an illegal settlement on a hilltop in the West Bank, Maale Chermesh C. The plot itself is meticulously constructed and is the fruit of the author’s exceptional control of the art of storytelling. The prologue (The Fields) is truly a tour-de-force of plot structuring. The story gets under the skins of the many varied characters, and manages to explain them to us, thereby explaining something in ourselves. At the same time he has created an impressively tight plot, which has various genre sources, and together they construct a tight framework that reveals several worlds, without losing the narrative core. Gavron’s technical skill is clear, and it serves a more interesting and varied storytelling perception than it seems at first glance, or when reading only parts of the book.
The novel therefore cannot be dismantled into parts, and this in itself is a kind of statement that also relates to the question of language. The novel’s language is complex, self-conscious and quite ironic. It is somewhat similar to the way that the hilltop and its residents are ultimately depicted from the outside. Gavron’s language forcibly refuses to be tempted by the poetry of the Hebrew language with its link to the Bible. Possibly this is a political observation. Hebrew, when you strip it from Messianism—t hat is from religious yearning—is quite a flat language. The use Gavron makes of this Hebrew, especially in the first part, could suggest that the author does not write “prettily”, but the later parts of the book and the ironic use of rich and virtuosic language clarify that we are dealing with what is left of the language. Not incidentally the Hebrew sounds at times almost like English, in the rhythm and succinctness of the sentences. If there is something sad in the linguistic plot, then this is one of the deepest and most interesting points of the book; it relates to the true relations between Hebrew and Israeliness, and its religious-messianic core.
The Hilltop examines reality with literary tools, and the story-centered thinking explains the historical reality. The mechanism that Gavron discovers and describes is fascinating. The irony is central and touches all the characters and all the aspects of the story – those on the hilltop, those protesting against it, those who live at its foot and those who ignore its existence. The various aspects of the story are not at all those we know from day-to-day politics. They deal with the fundamental questions of living in such a place, with its complicated and nuanced relations with the Arab inhabitants, and with its link to the Jewish people and their important community in America. For this reason America has such a major role in the novel. Both brothers spend long defining periods there, one of them even takes part in the financial collapse—and in fact runs away to the hilltop where his born-again religious brother lives. The support of American Jews for the settlement and their one-dimensional perception of its reality, are part of the narrative. There is something Tolstoyan in this interpretation, in the way it puts “the situation” at the center. For its part, “the situation” imbues the characters’ human weaknesses with historical dimensions, as if the brothers Kupper-Nehushtan were aristocrats in the time of the Graff.
To sum up, The Hilltop is a bold and capable attempt to confront the tradition of the novel. Gavron succeeds exceptionally well by writing a novel, which is a contemporary and profound development of the form, and not only in terms of Hebrew literature. In judging the book on these terms, we find a tremendous struggle with the pioneer-period novels and with the cultural and literary tradition that places the kibbutz and the settlement at the center. The connection between the historic ideals of the Labor party and the settlement enterprise, and the understanding of the links between motivation, action and form, are ultimately an artistic and cultural achievement, because the novel is not simplistic and does not lead to simplistic conclusions. True, this is an observation of the hilltop from the plain, meaning from Tel Aviv, but Tel Aviv is also reflected in the hilltop, and neither would find in the novel what it might think to find in itself.
For these reasons we have decided to award Assaf Gavron with the Bernstein Prize.
Prof. Niza Ben-Dov
Prof. Hillel Weiss
Dr. Uri Cohen