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Volatile love and politics

Bliss: A Novel, Ronit Matalon, Metropolitan Books: 264 pp., $23

August 10, 2003|Susie Linfield | Susie Linfield is a contributing writer to Book Review.

It's easy for those of us living in the relatively peaceful parts of the West -- such as Los Angeles, New York or London -- to view people in tormented regions like the Middle East as solely political beings. And they are political beings, defined by the often cataclysmic histories they are living (and dying) through. But people in Baghdad, Tehran and Jerusalem are also individuals -- falling in and out of love, fighting with their parents, struggling with work, children, money and faith (or their absence). Israeli writer Ronit Matalon's novel "Bliss" is about both the public and private lives of its protagonists -- though set in a place where "the personal is political" is a matter not of philosophic inquiry but of life and death.

"Bliss" tells the story of two loves -- one a brief affair, one a long friendship, both exceedingly painful. First, there is the "romance" (a word that, in the context of this novel, invites skepticism) between Sarah, a 35-year-old Israeli photographer and political activist in Tel Aviv, and Marwan, a 24-year-old Arab student she meets during the first intifada, which began in 1987. Sarah is married to the well-meaning Udi, and they have a young son, but she is willing to relinquish almost everything as her obsession with Marwan and the Palestinian struggle grows. Yet Sarah reminds one less of an Anna Karenina (or even an Emma Bovary) than of a star-struck groupie stalking her prey. This affair is a wretchedly one-way street: "Some days she goes with him to the hotel where he works the evening shift.... She sits at the table directly opposite his check-in desk for six hours without taking her eyes off him.... 'Go home,' he mouths to her silently, writing the words on a piece of paper and holding it up to her. 'Go home.' " This love will end not just in heartbreak but in blood.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 20, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Translation -- A review of Ronit Matalon's novel "Bliss" in the Aug. 10 Book Review omitted that the novel was translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 24, 2003 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 14 Features Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Translation -- A review of Ronit Matalon's novel "Bliss" in the Aug. 10 Book Review omitted information that the novel was translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen.

The more enduring relationship is that between Sarah and her oldest childhood friend, Ofra, who narrates the novel and who loves Sarah "more than anything in life." From the beginning, Sarah is the domineering force: "I was always at least half a step behind her," Ofra recalls. "She thought half a step behind was a good position to be in." She tells us that Sarah is "electrifying in her sprightly movement of body and thought," that she possesses a "powerful seductiveness that oozed out of her effortlessly," that she is a "dizzying" conversationalist and a turbulent free spirit who "shuffled her moods like a deck of cards." Ofra sums up: "She was, quite simply, the finest person I had ever known."

Matalon weaves many pasts into several presents, intercutting scenes set in France, where Ofra attends the funeral of a cousin who has died of AIDS, with those in Israel. She can be an impressively astute observer of her characters' psyches, flawed relationships and painful truths. Sarah's slightly too sensitive photographs, for instance, do not impress Ofra but, instead, make her feel "sickened by the poetry, the pleading intensity of feeling." Matalon describes Udi's devotion to his wife as "motivated more by the force of his own wanting and the joy of its discovery than by Sarah herself." And she sees clearly, and makes us see, how Ofra's adoration of Sarah is an all-too-convenient escape route: "I didn't think much of 'character,' preferring to abandon myself to vast longing -- which became a personality -- to cease being myself."

Yet "Bliss" is a disappointment, especially coming after Matalon's 1998 debut, "The One Facing Us." That quasi-autobiographical novel was infused with a hazy, almost spookily beautiful language that enveloped the reader in an utterly compelling world. In "Bliss," the writing becomes overwriting, the conversations are frequently stilted and the metaphors are often too baroque. I am not sure what it means, for instance, to describe the heaviness of sleep as being like "a different kind of weight -- a vast, deep field of Styrofoam balls that produced a chilling sound as they rustled against each other."

More important, the emotional heart of this story never rings true. Marwan is a cipher, a symbol of the oppressed "other" rather than a particular individual. Even worse, when it comes to Sarah, Matalon commits the classic error of telling too much and showing too little. Sarah never comes fully alive as a character, and instead of a vibrant romantic, she seems irritatingly histrionic. There are hints that Ofra (and therefore Matalon) knows this, for at one point Ofra refers to Sarah's "silly 'mad-artist' act," and later she calls herself "duped." But these insights never cohere, so for most of the novel one is simply puzzled as to why Sarah so magnetizes Ofra and Udi.

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