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from the January 2020 issue

Zeruya Shalev Connects Private Woes with Political Strife in “Pain”

Reviewed by Yael Halevi-Wise

The trauma of a terrorist attack and the disillusion of unrequited love haunt the protagonist of a new novel by the Israeli author, in whose work the past usually returns to impinge upon the present, clamoring for repair.

In a 2007 interview with journalist Rochelle Furstenberg, Zeruya Shalev said that her writing seeks “the opposite of the public domain. I want to capture the nuances of the inner life.” This assertion notwithstanding, her sixth novel, Pain, wades into contemporary Middle Eastern politics to establish a rather problematic comparison between the pain caused by a terrorist act and the trauma caused when naïve illusions of perfect love are destroyed. Shalev brings these two domains—public and private traumas with their respective complications—together through the figure of a “pain doctor,” whom the heroine, Iris, consults about the aftereffects of an injury that she has sustained in a terrorist act. 

The healer who might help Iris manage her physical injury turns out to be her long-lost lover, now a doctor, whom she paradoxically blames for having inflicted upon her the most intense suffering she has ever known. The plot thus remains firmly tethered to the inner world and domestic drama of a woman at the turn of the twenty-first century in Israel. Like her creator, Shalev’s heroine insists on her right to privilege private demands over broader societal concerns.

This comes as little surprise, as the novel’s origins are highly personal. In 2004, Shalev herself was wounded by a suicide bomber who killed eleven bus passengers and injured many others one busy morning in Jerusalem. She underwent complex surgery for her injuries, followed by four months of physical therapy during which she felt that she would never write fiction again. A decade and two novels later, however, Shalev has produced a work that inserts her personal experience into that of a middle-aged, middle-class woman struggling with a many-layered history of unhealed traumas. 

In the typical Shalev novel, the past returns to impinge upon the present, clamoring for repair—Love Life (1997) and The Remains of Love (2011) come readily to mind. In Pain, translated into English by Sondra Silverston, Shalev reveals both the complications of revisiting the past and the tendency of doing so to liberate and heal her heroines. 

Throughout the novel, Iris acknowledges that her body and soul may be irrevocably damaged; yet she insists on fulfilling her responsibilities in both work and family life. On the tenth anniversary of the terrorist bombing that drove nails, shrapnel, and rat poison into her limbs, she is seized by a debilitating pain that makes it almost impossible to juggle her responsibilities as a mother of two children, wife to a computer analyst, and principal of a school that prides itself on helping faltering students succeed. Her physical pain is further exacerbated by two older wounds of a psychological nature: her abandonment by the young man she loved in her youth—now her “pain doctor”—and a childhood spent in a fatherless home after hers died in one of Israel’s early wars. 

As fresh pain adds to older woes, Iris keeps going. She never allows herself to vent her anger on the man who maimed her body. Instead, she delves deep into her past. She analyzes her relationship with her father, her exorbitant attachment to her first boyfriend, and her lukewarm interest in her husband. Shalev's novel as a whole thus avoids engaging with the public domain in any meaningful way, except—indirectly and intertextually—through the protagonist’s work as an educator and school principal. However, the parallel that this novel creates between Iris’s youthful heartbreak and her wounds caused by a terrorist act, seem to suggest, simplistically, that the trauma in both cases can be transcended through the brave confrontation of both painful past and a painful present.

In a newsletter that Iris prepares for her pupils’ parents, she resolves to “breathe life” into a “tired time,” averring that,“if something can still change, that’s when it will, in the tension between memory and renewal.” When Iris rekindles the relationship that gave her so much joy and sorrow in her youth, she must choose between maintaining a steadfast commitment to the family that she has nurtured so carefully and satisfying a lifelong yearning that suddenly enables her to transcend her physical limitations. Either choice is heroic. 

One of the only ways in which Shalev endows her writing with a broader historical outlook is through allusions to key episodes from the Bible. At one point, Iris' monthly newletter to the parents of her pupils alludes to a painful moment of reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers after he reveals himself to them in Egypt: “How can Joseph truly reconcile with those who have inflicted such a mortal blow on him?” This blunt question, which comes closest to enunciating what we keep wondering about the terrorist who inflicted such a blow on Iris herself, opens up an additional interpretative link between the novel’s disparate realms, highlighting that Iris lives “between miracles and disasters,” to quote Shalev’s description of her own life spent in a region where at any moment she might be called upon to pay a heavy price for her existence.*

Popular both in Israel and abroad, notably in Germany and Italy, Shalev’s novels portray a slice of contemporary Israeli life through passionate love affairs that encompass several generations mired in fraught relationships. This novel is in much the same vein and will have particular appeal to readers of the “sandwich” generation caught between caring for elderly parents and parenting young adults not quite ready to fly on their own. Here, as trauma builds upon trauma and Iris keeps searching for a way out of her troubles, it becomes clear that neither her emotional nor physical pain can ever abate. She concentrates nevertheless on enabling the next generation to carry on with the struggle for survival and normalcy and through this empowerment, she transcends her own limitations.

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