Roy Chen is familiar with Ukraine as much as he is fond of it: his wife lived here for an extended period of time and can speak Ukrainian. Chen himself took part in the discussions during the Book Forums as well as took excursions through old Jewish cemeteries ranging from Zhytomyr to Feodosia. Back home in Israel, Chen is most known as a playwright. Nevertheless, in recent years, he has drifted towards a more prose-like writing style. His work is compact and deep, usually touching the principles of memory and tradition, the comical and the tragic, as well as encompassing the Jewish experience in a globalized world.
– Among the top modern trends in world literature, one can see multiculturalism and the various ways one can try and understand the other not through the Western perspective, but rather a more impartial view. Multiculturalism in Israeli literature, logically, must be present as Israel is a country of immigrants. As I know, your maternal line comes from Morocco. How do such things transform when your country is under a constant threat?
– In 1949, when Israel was founded, the main ideology behind its creation was the construction of a country which would be a ‘melting pot’ of many cultures. Regardless of where people came from, from the East or West, Europe or Africa. Now, these people were no longer Moroccan, Jewish, Russian Jews but Israelis. A rather high price was paid for this: every migrant had to leave their own culture, birthplace and even language behind. For decades, this was even the case for Yiddish: what was started by the Germans was finished by the Israelis – one can say the same about Jewish dialects. At the moment, Israel is trying to go back from being a melting pot of fondue, into something more like a salad. In a salad, the tomato remains a tomato, a cucumber a cucumber, but they’re all united by the ‘sauce’ – Israeli nationalism. From this perspective, the situation has somewhat stabilized. Literature, on the other hand, represents something from a certain epoch.
In the last 15 years, Israeli authors have started to return to what was lost, to the thoughts of what it really means to be Israeli today. Amos Oz, Meir Shalev and David Grossman come from the first and second generations of Israeli citizens. They had to deal with a new element, a character traumatized by the Holocaust, and to combine it with their new country. We had to be strong as finally, two thousand years without a homeland have come to an end: we now had a country with our own army, language and land. However, authors of my generation, those who are 10 years younger than Etgar Keret, have flourished in surrealism. I want to be beyond reality, at least by a bit.
It is easiest for me to talk about multiculturalism in the context of my own writings. In my novel ‘Souls’, I return to our origins, but at the same time, I try to maintain the diversity of modern Israel. In other words, I try to convey modern times through the origins of the past, through history. It can be seen as the past of the future or the future of the past.
The main protagonist of the novel is a 40-year-old sociopathic smoker Grisha. However, this is his later state, as he has already lived on earth for four hundred years and now shares his experiences of reincarnation with the reader. His childhood was spent in Ukraine, which at the time was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. I imagined at the time that the small Jewish town Grisha was from would be somewhere between Bila Tserkva and Zhytomyr. Grisha at the time was named Getz and he spoke Yiddish. I chose this period and this territory as this was the epicenter of Jewish theater at the time. For 1700 years, Jews were not allowed to produce their own theater, and only since the seventeenth century in Ukraine, according to historical sources, do we see the emergence of Purim Spiel and other humoristic shows for the holiday of Purim.
After his next reincarnation, Getz ends up in Venice, where the first Jewish ghetto was known to exist. The word ‘ghetto’ is often associated with the horrors of the Nazi regime, however the Italian ghetto had nothing to do with it. The Jewish ghetto in this case was a settlement in the foundries in the Venetian quarter of Cannareggio, inhabited by Jews from all around the world.
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Ukraine are my theatrical roots and Venice is the future. I have no connection to Italy, but I would like to form such links, that is why I’m in Venice now. I also have family roots from Morocco. There is a chapter dedicated to Morocco in the book. My grandfather is from Casablanca and my grandmother is a Berber Jew. In the 1940’s they met in Israel and started a family. The novel ‘Souls’ is a chance to briefly travel back to close ones who are no longer around. In order to investigate the Moroccan background, the homeland of my grandfather, I traveled to Casablanca and a rather strange occurrence took place. I am not religious and rather far from mysticism, a sarcastic old Jew. However, In Morocco, I suddenly felt as a part of the place, and that a part of it lives in me.
In his next life, Getz lived in Germany. Dachau, the Holocaust – without this, it would be impossible to write the novel, as this was also part of my own story in a way. For a very long time, I tried to portray the events in my own way. After a lot of strong literature and other non-fiction around this topic, it is not easy to find one’s own vision of these events. And then, I decided to create the flea circus – a crazy and surreal metaphor for the Holocaust. The next part of the story was the Russian part, which is also a part of my own literary interests. The ‘Souls’ novel is both history and my own biography. Grisha-Getz encompasses both Jewish multiculturalism and my personal one.
– Let’s expand on the topic of culture. In Ukraine, we can still feel the aftermath of being colonized, so we must overcome numerous inferiority complexes, including those concerning culture. Only Russia’s war against Ukraine became an effective antidote against the inferiority complex. In this case, what do modern Israelis have to eliminate when it comes to culture?
– Oh, a thousand things. We must get rid of the notion that we are the chosen people. As fast as possible. The Book (Torah) has too much influence on our lives. Of course, the Bible is a great thing but we have somehow managed to fixate on this idea of being the chosen people, without considering many other important teachings.
The second problem is that we have occupied others’ territories, and this needs to be solved. Every child who is born into an Israeli family will end up in the army after 18 years and must take up arms. This is not a game, this is a real army. This is all part of the idea of a chosen people and promised land. Hello! We’re already on the promised land! I love my country, I love the story of the chosen people and promised land, but the moral of this story is somewhat different than is stated, in my opinion. If we really believe that we invented monotheism and spent 2000 years without a homeland, and returned after the Holocaust, then we must now must improve ourselves. We must not become like our captors, but must be better than them. Unfortunately, Israel is David who became Goliath.
My paternal line is traced back to this territory for the last 5 centuries, and I feel a strong connection with it. Of course, I could write novels and plays in any country of the world, but I make the everyday choice of living in Israel, despite the difficulties. I believe in the right of my homeland to exist, however this cannot stop me from criticizing it. My country has multiple internal conflicts, this is actually good for writing, but not as good for living. We will have to deal with a lot of problems first, for example, the treatment of refugees. We were refugees for 2000 years, how can we not accept refugees now? How can we impose our Jewish identity on those who do not want to be Jews? Israel is not only about religion. Yes, our history is largely based on the Bible, but 5000 years have passed since the events in the Bible.
– How do you see the future of Israeli literature? Will there be an opportunity for the integration of multicultural relations and the globalization of literary development? Or, on the contrary, national/ethnic characteristics and identity will prevail?
– Good question, I don’t know the exact answer. Only stupid people believe in prophecies, but I can only speak for myself. Every time when I try to write from the perspective of a global citizen, a cosmopolite, I realize: I am a Jewish and Israeli author. Every year I feel that I am increasingly more rooted in Jewish culture. In fact, you come to realize that you are a more local rather than a global author. If you try to become a universal author, then that is your end. You must think universally, and you must speak authentically. Being authentic is being part of the place where you live. The problem of Israel also partially rests in the fact that it tries to simultaneously be with the US or with Europe. However, we are part of the Middle East. We must be ourselves. This is also my own problem: why have I spent my youth reading Russian novels and not our own?
The question as to which direction the literature is headed for remains open. Today, there are more books out there than ever before, people are buying more books than ever before. Even more so, people are reading more substandard pieces than ever before. Even when people read books, they tend to skim through, without diving in deep. In my opinion, there are too many hardcopies nowadays, too many authors, and bookstores often resemble mass graves. I then ask myself: who would need Roy Chen’s new book? No one. It’s time to call Prometheus and burn down this place.
Today, I like to think of good literature as a small sect in a small church. We come there, we read, we exchange books – a matter of not too many people.
– Europe openly embraces diversity not only when it comes to the Western canon but also other cultures. Sometimes, it may seem as if it is not about giving minorities attention, but about expansion of the Western European literature to new territories. A good example of this is the last nobel literature prize award to Abdulrazak Gurnah: he is often referred to as a Tanzanian author, even though he has lived in Britain since his youth, received British education, and his work fits British contemporary novels quite well, alongside authors like Kadzuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan. In your opinion as an Israeli author, is the literary process becoming more open? Or does Europe just want everyone to adopt their style with their slight local touch?
– No one has described Europe better than Michel Houellebecq. His texts are the mirror of death when it comes to European culture. As for Israeli authors, we happen to be victims of our own country and identity. No one made us victims, we were just born victims. For example, when delivering speeches abroad, I often talk about politics. I do not want to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am an author and I would rather discuss love, death, loneliness, childhood, boredom – everything but politics. ‘But everything you’ve listed is connected to politics’, you may say. – Birth, childhood, love, even death are connected to the place where you live’. It is both true and not. Us authors, as well as readers, always live in two places at the same time: in the external world and in literature. Furthermore, I have to say that I live within my literature more than in the external world. Even here in Florence, I brought along with me an entire suitcase filled with books.
Do Europeans understand us? I don’t know. Do we understand ourselves? Can we as Jewish authors present ourselves such as we want and how others would see us? I don’t know. Someone from the outside is able to answer this, as it is not possible to say on the inside.
– You said that you are often forced to talk about politics. In fact, one can say that the authors of today play the role of public intellectuals. Readers are not only interested as to what authors think about literature but also their views on climate change and elections. Do you feel an increased personal responsibility of yourself with regards to society? Does it weigh down on you? Would you rather solely focus on writing?
– This is a part of an author’s personality. TV shows, meetings, even our interview here are components of an author’s activity. Right now of course, I am not doing anything highly dedicated, I’m just telling more about myself, perhaps even narcissistically, but even this becomes part of my own image as an author. All authors try to promote themselves and talking about a situation (climate change, politics, war in Ukraine) in general is always part of self-promotion. I have to be honest, I can’t stand this. If I have to say something, it is better for me to write political satire, and present my thoughts in that way. Whatever I would say now would eventually become very banal and self-repetitive. I think this is a problem of my generation. Older writers such as Oz, Shalev, Grossman, all talked about politics, their voices were listened to and were considered to be quite important, even for us, the youth at the time. But then, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, war after war, and we slowly became more cynical and bitter. It is difficult to talk about conflicts, one must look for new means of communicating when touching upon these topics. As it seems now, we simply cite the words of others, and thus we do not sound authentic.
– Earlier, you admitted that you mostly talk about yourself. That reminded me of a phrase by Tove Jansson, that every author writes about themselves. Does that include you?
– Yes, of course. Not only do you write about yourself, about who you know, but also about those who you do not know. All of the issues at hand have already been written about, all the relevant stories discussed. The only way to stay original is to create your own, personalized fingerprint so to say, in paperback history. Everyone has 20 fingers and toes – that is the key to leaving at least one and noticeable trace.
– It sounds quite post-modern, when you talk about the cyclical flow of the same ideas and stories in literature. At the same time, this is romantic, as you firmly believe that every author has their own footprint.
– Yes, I am very sentimental. Cynical, but also sentimental at the same time.
– Often, authors claim that the writing of novels is therapy. Others simply have to write and cannot stop. Imagine if there were no readers left in the world, would you still write?
– Oh, novels are like a nightmare for me. I cannot stop writing. When I was a teenager, literature really saved me. But I write not in order to save others, this would be too narcissistic even for me. My writing is there to save only myself. I am an almost pathologically obsessed author: I take note of everything, even this interview I have jotted down in my notebook. We’re not just talking about the simple scheduling of meetings. When I was a kid, I wrote every evening: ‘get up tomorrow, brush your teeth, put on your clothes’. If something wasn’t written down, I would simply not do that thing. I believe that the world exists only if I see it through pen and paper.
In Tel Aviv I often go to the sea, look at the waves, glance at the beauty and do not really feel anything special. But if I read about the sea, I see it live, I am fascinated – this is life for me. If I’m not writing, that means I’m dead. I keep diaries and even write texts that will never be published. Here in Florence, I recently finished writing a book and immediately started another, even though I don’t know what to write about exactly. I am deeply engulfed by literature but at the same time I daydream about a time when I wake up and don’t have to read or write. I have no idea what I would be doing in such a case, but what kind of happiness would it bring if your own creations and characters aren’t following you?
Perhaps the thing is that for twenty years I have worked in theater. When I get behind my computer in the morning, I am one-on-one with the text as my own heroes and characters appear before me, similar to Pirandello’s plays. It’s as if I’m speaking with real people. For example, a woman, who is 66, an English translator who has been working for 10 years on the translation of ‘Finnegans Wake’. She looks like a guitar, not a large one, an eastern one, similar to an oud. She has short legs, ginger hair and smokes a lot. She hates telephone calls and has mountains of books at home. And at a certain moment, she comes to life and sits next to me. I wake up in the morning and she says: ‘Well, what are we doing today? Did you notice that you forgot to give me a leg?’ – ‘But you have two legs, I wrote about this’ – ‘You wrote about it, but what do I feel?’ – and I understand that today, her right leg hurts. And that is how I work with characters, they either annoy or fascinate me. I always remember that at the end of the road, the reader awaits me. I want readers to laugh, not just smile but laugh to the fullest. If they are able to laugh, then perhaps they would be able to cry as well.
– Dramas and novels for you are the biggest part of the current global novelist project? Or do you switch around these identities, perhaps dramas, novels and translations as separate entities?
– I did not plan any of it, it just all happened to me. When I was young and fascinated by various literature, I started to write. Afterwards, I met a group of emigrants from ex-Soviet states which helped organize the ‘Malenkiy’ theater in Tel Aviv. That’s how my theatrical and almost simultaneously translatory paths started. In a year, when I was 25 or 26, I wrote my first novel.
– What should modern theater be like in order to continue to attract spectators, despite the fact that television gives a more complete experience into presented events? As it stands, we cannot consider the Molière tradition in this case.
– Most of all, I like the fact that theater is an ancient art. This is where its magic lies. You are an adult, you’re sitting in the dark like a child and you’re hungry for stories. You may say that television has it the same way. However, theater is like a tale for adults. In movies, they try to convince you that it is reality that unfolds before your eyes. In theater, this is never the case. You understand that the characters are not real people, you see the backstage. Given that no one tries to mimic reality on stage, much deeper topics are actually addressed. We tell the spectators: now we’ll show you a story based on words, mimicking and voice – and you will cry and laugh from the bottom of your heart. The spectators know what stands behind the metaphor – this is why they laugh and cry so sincerely. Yes, in theater I feel like a child, but at the same time, this is the most grown-up art. Simplicity is the secret of theater. How will it be in the future? It will stay exactly the same. No matter what changes, the stage and people who tell other people their stories will stay where they are. Literature is a sort of theater for two, where you don’t have an audience. As if you send the troupe somewhere else and where the reader becomes the director, musician and producer all in one. You create this play together.
– Let’s talk about the incredible timeframe of your writing. Often, you refer to archetypal and mythological motives, such as those in the collection of ‘Tel Aviv Tales’. Is there a general chronotype being constructed by you? Or is every book a separate world?
– We’ll be able to talk about this in 10-15 years, as I don’t have an answer right now. It seems that there is such a thing, but my critics and biographers will be able to give you a more precise answer, if any. In 2020, when I released my ‘Souls’ novel, I wanted to write my next book about three women. Without extended historical research, without the magical realism that I have already managed to fill myself up with. Something cosmopolitan, not Jewish. Upon came the first character, a female Joyce translator who I have already described prior. She said: ‘Alright, I am a modern and realistic Tel-Aviv woman – like you wanted. But what is the core of my story?’ And I replied: ‘The thing is that god came to you and asked you to be his prophet’. Immediately I thought: damn it, again god, Jewish identity, yet again this magical realism. And thus, I created a text about three generations of women: granddaughter, daughter and grandmother, – and I finished it in Florence. After all, you can’t run from yourself. Your heart must win the battle against your mind when we speak of a written piece.
– We have already discussed the novel ‘Souls’ in which you describe the reincarnation of Grisha during the last four centuries. Here, one can feel the motive behind the ‘traveling Jew’, however I am more interested in the concept of forgetting and memory, the longevity of cultural traditions which you touch upon in the text. To what extent do you find it possible to feel like a part of greater Jewish literature?
– Yes, I feel that I am a part of it, but not because it is important, but simply because I am part of it. Even if I tried to run away from my own parents, I would still be their son. When I was young, I really wanted to believe that I can become whoever I want. When I grew up though, I realized that I can only be myself. Even when we move forward we return in a way.
– What is the act of translation for you? Is it something more of a responsibility in a society to make important texts available? Or is it a method to work out one’s own style?
– Every book is a new challenge for me. I have translated many authors because their books were not available in Hebrew. Often enough, it feels like I am able to convey something important through translation. Some texts I have translated anew, because Hebrew has changed over time. Translating is always learning as well, like taking courses in literature, history, geography and linguistics.
– In Ukraine, many important translations are made thanks to the support of patrons or international grants. What about Israel? Are there programs supporting authors and writers? Is it difficult to publish a book that isn’t designated for a larger audience?
– Yes, it is not easy to write such a book. I was lucky: I have already established contracts for my next books as well as translations abroad. However, many poets, playwrights, and authors of short stories find it difficult. For example, no one wants to publish a short story as such. I can imagine how Salinger comes with his own collection and an Israeli publicist tells him: ‘We liked your first text, but what is this that you brought? Short stories? Why nine? Why don’t you make a novel out of them? Or perhaps just a script for a TV series!’. Otherwise it would not be sold.
– One of the factors that affect sales in Europe are literary awards. You have many of them, for both Drama and Prose. What function do awards play in Israel today?
– First of all, it is a means of getting money as no one really pays for literature! In one go, you obtain the sum of about 4-5 monthly salaries, while the publisher pays you the equivalent of about a month. But I wrote ‘Souls’ for about 5 years. Awards motivate publishers to go after your books. Finally, it is very rewarding and touching – I always felt sincerely touched when I won an award. At the same time, I am not unhappy when I end up with nothing. After all, I do not write for any prize.
– Could you please name a few important fiction books written by Israeli authors, as you see it? Perhaps some of your publishers may turn their attention towards them, and their translated work may even appear in Ukraine.
– Yishai Sarid and his ‘The Memory Monster’ – is a short yet substantial novel about the Holocaust. A strange, sarcastic and crazy piece. Itamar Orlev’s ‘Bandit’ – I love this book. Rutu Modan makes incredible graphic novels. Sivan Beskin, who was born in Vilnius, writes brilliant poetry. And of course, there are classics, which, fortunately, do not require my promotion.