Unsettling Days

The Hilltop: A Novel

by Assaf Gavron, translated by Steven Cohen

Scribner, 464 pp., $26

Assaf Gavron’s The Hilltop, first published in Hebrew in 2013, is a refreshing reminder that traditional realism is still an effective vehicle of insight into contemporary society and politics. There is nothing modernist or postmodern in the way Gavron tells his story—no experimentation with narrative form, no dense interior monologues, no stylistic fireworks. What Gavron repeatedly evinces is a very keen eye for characteristic gesture and speech, for the reflexes of social milieu, and for the ways in which ideology suffuses attitudes and actions. The sum effect in this novel is a probing representation of the settler movement and the ambiguous relation to it of the Israeli government and of the consumerist world of secular Israel.

Assaf Gavron. (Courtesy of Jonathan Bloom.)

Assaf Gavron. (Courtesy of Jonathan Bloom.)

The book is alternately satiric (it includes scenes of sheer farce) and somber, ending on a mock-idyllic note that points to a future fraught with ominous potential. Though it seems safe to infer that Gavron strenuously objects to the settler movement, part of his achievement is that he is able to imagine it sympathetically from within, making us see the world as the settlers, who perceive themselves as embattled idealists, must see it. The book begins with ironic echoes of the Garden story in Genesis (“In the beginning were the fields . . . And so it came to pass that Othniel deferred to the vintner . . .”), ironically intimating that the settlers may imagine they are living in a new Eden. The English version of the novel is well served by Steven Cohen’s lively translation, which takes minor liberties with the Hebrew to vivifying effect and can be faulted only for the now predictable repeated use of “like” where “as” is required and for sometimes making the dialogue sound too American (“dude” for the Hebrew gever, “man” and “bro” for the Hebrew ahi, “brother”).

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About the Author

Robert Alter’s latest book, Strong As Death Is Love: The Song of Songs, Ruth, Esther, Jonah, and Daniel, will be published by W.W. Norton & Company in March.


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