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Review: ‘The Hilltop’ views everyday absurdism in occupied territories

The cover of "The Hilltop" and author Assaf Gavron.
(Fana Feng / Scribner)
Los Angeles Times Book Critic

Assaf Gavron’s 2010 novel “Almost Dead” does something I would have thought impossible — it makes satire out of terrorism. The story of a man who becomes an Israeli national hero after surviving three attacks in a single week, the book offers a sharply ironic look at the intersection of image and reality.

This character is no role model; he’s a guy in the wrong place at the right time. Gavron, who was born near Jerusalem and lives in Tel Aviv, is suggesting that we are all of us (citizens, nations, even, to some extent, terrorists) making it up as we go along.

A similar sensibility centers “The Hilltop,” Gavron’s seventh book, although only the second (after “Almost Dead”) to appear in the United States. A sprawling novel that revolves around a small settlement in the occupied territories, its focus is less satirical than absurdist, offering a middle vision between the ridiculous and the sublime.

“In the beginning were the fields,” Gavron starts things off, and the biblical rhythms are no accident. For Othniel Assis and his fellow settler Hilik Yisraeli, their community is no less than a birthright, a connection to geography, to history, that stands outside government or politics.

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It doesn’t hurt that Israel’s bureaucracy is so labyrinthine that one department doesn’t know what the next is doing. “The new trailers,” Gavron writes, “were there without a permit. However, their removal, too, required authorization, which they didn’t have. And thus the soldiers loaded the settlers onto the military vehicles and drove them away — with the records of the army and Defense Ministry duly noting that the outpost had been evacuated. The settlers returned the very next day, and the brigade commander turned his attention to more pressing matters.”

Here, Gavron sets up the essential push-and-pull of the novel: The settlers may have laid claim illegally to their enclosure, but it is almost impossible to get them out. To make that explicit, he introduces characters on every side of the situation, including Othniel and Hilik and their families, a section commander of the Israeli Defense Forces and the residents of the neighboring Palestinian village of Kharmish.

Gavron describes all this with a measured matter-of-factness, complicating the tensions with familiarity. In this world, then, Arabs are not the other but rather uneasy neighbors who share many of the same hopes and dreams.

When the IDF decides to build a security fence that will encroach on both the settlement and the village’s olive fields, Jews and Palestinians alike protest the move. “The incident climaxed in a bizarre act of solidarity,” Gavron writes in the voice of a Washington Post reporter whom he places at the scene. “The Palestinian owner of the olive groves, a religious settler woman, and an Israeli man whose ties to the area remain unclear all leaped together onto the blade of the bulldozer to bring it to a halt.”

Those olive groves are the source of a key subplot: a proposed partnership between one of the settlers, a former investment banker named Roni, and the Palestinian, Musa, who owns the fields. Roni has a scheme to sell Musa’s olive oil to boutiques in Tel Aviv, but when he goes to close the deal, he is outsmarted. “I give to someone from the village,” Musa tells him. “His brother is lawyer in Bethlehem.”

For Gavron, that highlights the way nothing (or no one) is isolated anymore. Investment bankers may become Israeli settlers; Palestinian villagers have lawyers in the family.

“Those trees,” Musa thinks, “were here for hundreds of years before him and were supposed to remain hundreds of years after him, the earth’s trees, not Palestine’s and not Israel’s, trees that don’t care who’s there and who’s in control and who builds above the earth. That’s all nonsense to them, the real world is under the earth, and there they are deeply and widely rooted.”

This is not to say that Gavron overlooks the politics, just that he puts them in their place. Politics, after all, begins with people’s hopes and fears. And yet the pleasure of “The Hilltop” is that it doesn’t offer easy outcomes — the only option is to persevere.

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“The Hilltop” is not without its flaws, especially a pair of extended digressions about Roni and his brother Gabi, who end up at the settlement to escape their pasts. These stories are interesting but take us out of the main narrative. More important is the human drama and, yes, the human comedy.

“Winds will change,” Gavron writes, “and days will end, and life will go on. The children will grow, the worshippers will pray …, and the soldiers will continue to come and go, to climb and descend, to be replaced and return, and eyes will open in the morning and the sun will rise over the desert, and set in the evening behind the mountain and eyes will close, and in between work, and prayer, and rest, and love.”

Twitter: @davidulin

The Hilltop
A Novel

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Assaf Gavron, translated from the Hebrew by Steven Cohen
Scribner: 448 pp., $26


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