The Hilltop features in the Haaretz Books Supplement summer reading supplement:
Settling for more
Liat Elkayam recommends ‘The Hilltop,’ for a holiday in Sinai
As someone who goes on vacation mainly to read books, over the years I’ve developed an array of tactics for selecting my holiday reading − all of which have proven lacking in some way. Worst of all is reading books in the places where they are set. “The Castle” in Prague? The Kafka book is so much more fun. “Under the Tuscan Sun” was way more enjoyable than the pastoral pasta inferno I went to. And unfortunately I just don’t have access to Jay McInerney’s New York. So these days, I opt for the opposite route and aim to read books as far from their point of origin as possible.
For the holiday I yearn for most − a hut in Sinai at Ras-Abu-Whatever − I would gladly, if paradoxically, take along Assaf Gavron’s “The Hilltop.” Firstly, because the cover looks good; and second, because a girl on a beach reading a book and laughing aloud always looks good. And “The Hilltop” is, first and foremost, a very funny novel.
It’s funny that the cruelest act of vengeance that a settler character can think of is to blow up a virtual Second Life mosque by means of Star-of-David-shaped spam. It’s funny when one of the settlers discovers that Matsumata, a Japanese agricultural institute, has cornered the market for authentic olive oil. And it’s even funnier because Matsumata messed up his deal with the Arabs from the neighboring village, which would have enabled him to make a little fortune at their expense as well as at the expense of bourgeois Tel Avivians. It should be obvious by now that this novel is also very political, firing sharp poisoned barbs in all directions.
But what really makes “The Hilltop” ascend to the top of the literary heap is the sharp movement between two antithetical poles of the storytelling craft. On one end you have the meticulously orchestrated analytic and ironic voice, which sends the reader to regions of reflection on the essence of Israeliness. This is the part that is focused on a place − on the fictional settlement Ma’aleh Hermesh C − and it pushes away the reader emotionally while demanding intellectual involvement.
While one hand repels, the other draws you in. For on the other pole you will find the keenest emotion, enough to rip the heart in two. Strewn throughout the book are segments that reveal the past and penetrate the conflicted consciousness of two of the main protagonists − Gabi and Ronny Cooper, the endearing, orphaned, former kibbutznik brothers who become settlers, each for his own fervent reasons.
These flashbacks offer glimpses of hideous, horrid scenes (most chilling of all is a scene in which the young Gabi is punished by anonymous kibbutzniks, who shove loads of maggots, beetles and snails into his mouth). I didn’t need Gavron to know that settlers are human beings. What I didn’t know is that this particular reader, a leftist-radical-agnostic girl, could fall in love, contrary to her own good sense, with a protagonist who is despicable by any standard.
And if that’s not a vacation, I don’t know what is.
Liat Elkayam is a television and popular culture analyst for Haaretz.
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