Before reading Nava Semel’s recently translated Paper Bride, I had never heard of the prolific and multi-talented Israeli writer, playwright, artist and journalist. My only excuse for this ignorance is that Semel’s work is less available in the United States than it should be—and frankly, I’m not sure why. Born in Israel in 1954—the same year as David Grossman, one of Israel’s most acclaimed and popular Israeli writers—Semel has published 17 books and four plays. Many of these works have been translated into German, French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, Dutch, and Czech, in addition to English. She has won numerous awards—not just in Israel but in France, Germany and the United States—and her work has been adapted for television, radio, and opera in quite a few countries. She is part of a distinguished family: her father, Yitzhak Artzi, was a Zionist activist in his native Romania and eventually served in the Knesset. Her older brother is the well-known Israeli folk-rock singer-songwriter Shlomo Artzi.
So why has Semel’s work, for the most part, remained under the radar in the United States? Some critics have suggested that her subject matter—often, the psychological and physical traumas, including sexual abuse, suffered by children during the Holocaust—can be just too grim for American audiences (see the Forward’s review of her novel And the Rat Laughed). Another reason, I think, is that several of her books (such as Becoming Gershona and Flying Lessons) have been marketed in the United States as children’s or “young adult” literature rather than “serious” adult novels. But for Semel’s work, as for that of many of other writers, these labels can be both limiting and misleading.
As with much young adult literature, Semel’s writing style is highly accessible; her stories are often told from the point of view of a child or adolescent. Yet the children in Semel’s stories are innocent in age only. They lack maturity, but history has forced them to grapple with grim experience: their own or their family’s trials in war and its aftermath, including displacements from home and language, followed by the struggle to create an independent country they can call their own. With remarkable sensitivity and clarity, Semel portrays characters whose confusion arises precisely from the fact that they are children—but how can you be a child in such adult emotional territory? They are working as hard as they can to make sense of a post-Holocaust, pre-state limbo. This is the atmosphere, as fraught with grief and anxiety as with hope for a secure future, that characterizes much of Semel’s work.
So, how should one market Semel’s work for American readers? Her frequent focus on the all too realistically described impact of the Holocaust on surviving children risks striking parents (American parents, anyway) as too “mature” for their children to take in. At the same time, a “young adult” tag gives the impression that these books will be too juvenile for adult sensibilities.
Similar marketing concerns may be the reason that Semel’s Paper Bride, though originally published in Hebrew in 1996, took until 2012 to appear in English—and then under the imprint of a publisher, Hybrid Books, based in Australia, not America.
Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverstein, Paper Bride is an engaging tale set in British Mandate Palestine. Its detailed rendering of that time and place provides additional insight into the overlapping struggles of the era. And, yes, one of its strengths is that it can be read with equal pleasure by young and old.
The novel is framed as the memory of an elderly filmmaker reflecting back on himself as he was in 1936: a troubled not-yet-12-year-old orphan, a loner and troublemaker hardly able to read or write (no one had yet heard of dyslexia), barely tolerated by the inhabitants of his small, dusty village in pre-state Israel. His only family consists of his spinster aunt and his older brother Imri, whom he idolizes—in part on account of Imri’s willingness to sacrifice himself for the goal of statehood.
At first, that goal is presented as comic: Imri’s bravery consists of—marrying for the homeland. This is no joke, especially as other, secret aspects of Imri’s mission are revealed. But for the moment, all that Uzik knows is that Imri must make repeated trips to Poland as part of an ingenious scheme to outmaneuver Britain’s severe restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine. Because foreign brides were automatically entitled to enter Palestine legally, Imri, on each of his trips, would acquire a brand-new “paper” bride, bring her home to Palestine, quickly divorce her, and repeat the process again and again. In no way does love enter the picture.
Except, of course, that it does. Imri falls for Anna, his first paper bride. He nevertheless divorces her, as planned, and marries a second woman. But this second bride refuses to give Imri a divorce. Meanwhile, a gallant British officer stationed at the air base next to the village tries to woo Anna away from Imri—and Palestine.
Uzik wrestles with jealousy (has Anna stolen his brother away from him?), divided loyalties (should he root for the British officer to win out over his brother?), and a sense of worthlessness (if he can’t even read or write, how will he ever help the cause of independence?). Semel captures with subtlety and sensitivity Uzik’s growing attachment to Anna, whose caring presence allows him to begin to articulate his previously unexpressed grief for his parents. The author also makes great comic use of Uzik’s fanatical attachment to his beloved dog, a mongrel he has named Johnny Weissmuller in honor of the actor who played Tarzan.
True, the novel ends too tidily, with some plot turns that are telegraphed from the start. But Semel writes with a transparent sweetness that seems almost daring in this cynical age. Her depiction of life on a moshav in 1936 has the ring of truth to it. Most of all, she takes the emotional lives of children seriously. Hers is an achievement that deserves attention from adults both young and old.
Diane Cole, the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges, writes for The Wall Street Journal and other publications and is a faculty member of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El in New York.
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