Roni Kupper, at a bar in Tel Aviv, turns to a woman sitting by herself. “What do you say, Ravit,” he asks. “Can people change, or do they always remain the same?” That’s the emblematic question for Roni and for his brother Gabi, albeit in different ways.
We meet the brothers in a hilltop outpost on the West Bank, where Roni has unexpectedly arrived on Gabi’s doorstep. Ma’aleh Hermesh C, an offshoot of the older settlement Ma’aleh Hermesh A, is home to just a handful of families. Their “caravans” sit on land that is not their own. Some of it is designated as a nature reserve by the Israeli government; some is owned by a Palestinian who lives in Beirut; some is “survey land;” and some is Israeli state-owned land assigned to the original settlement.
Most of the denizens of “C” are religious, but their reasons for being there are varied. Othniel, the de-facto chief, continually uses his connections in the government and the army to fend off attempts to declare the outpost illegal, together with Hilik, another pioneering spirit. Brooklyn-born Josh, who left America after 9/11, tries to build a new life as he struggles with his Hebrew; he shares a trailer with Jehu, who invited him to the outpost. Jenia came from Russia; the Gotlieb family moved to “C“ from another settlement. Shaulit Rivlin, a teacher, tries to raise three small children despite scant help from her feckless husband.
Gabi is newly religious. As a boy he was teased by the other kids, and took out his enraged revenge in antisocial, rebellious ways that got him into trouble. He did the same thing in the army. He decides to try his luck in New York, working for a moving company, and ends up back in Tel Aviv, marries, and has a child. But when anger gets the better of him yet again, he loses his wife and his son. The consolations of religion, particularly the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, help him make a new start on the hilltop.
By contrast, Roni — four years older than his brother — was confident and popular when they were growing up on a kibbutz in the 1980s. He went on to serve in an elite commando unit in the army’s Golani Brigade. Through a combination of charm, hard work, aggressiveness, and luck he built a successful chain of bars in Tel Aviv in the 1990s.
In the mid-2000s he too moved to New York, to be a fund trader. He earned millions, but thanks to a high-risk gamble at the wrong time he lost it all — and huge sums from other investors as well. When Roni flees New York he takes refuge in the only place he could think of: his brother’s trailer. He loses no time in promoting another get-rich-quick scheme, this one involving olive oil made the traditional Arab way in a neighboring Palestinian village.
Meanwhile, life in the outpost goes on, sometimes contentiously. Leftists demonstrate against the settlers on Fridays. Work progresses on the separation barrier between Israelis and Palestinians, and a petition is filed to protest the destruction of olive groves. A teenager uses his avatar on Second Life to do mischief against virtual Muslims. Another teenager trysts with a soldier stationed at the outpost. Ancient coins are discovered in a cave. A baby is born. A chaotic press conference at the outpost by the Education Minister turns into an international incident when it comes to the attention of the President of the United States — an incident that could change everything in this small world.
There are many wonderful set-pieces. One takes us to the olive press operated by a Palestinian villager, where millstones powered by a donkey press olives straight from the tree. The Purim party at the book’s climax is also full of marvelous details, such as the boy who arrives in the costume of a Tel Aviv leftist: a Peace Now T-shirt, and restaurant menu in hand that features shrimp. These richly-imagined situations and the people in them give Ma’aleh Hermesh C the textures of a vividly real place.
This stunning novel, like life itself, is packed with incidents both important and inconsequential, and sometimes you can’t be sure which is which. Yet, as eventful as it is, The Hilltop cares most about the longings and hopes and limitations of the individuals who populate it. The real drama lies in whether they can find forgiveness, redemption, love, or happiness, and — yes — whether they can ever really change.
The Hilltop touches deeper questions of meaning and truth in the way all great fiction does: not by taking sides, but through keen observation of the human comedy with enormous sympathy for everyone in it. It is brilliantly imagined, deeply compassionate, constantly entertaining, and well served by Steven Cohen’s deft, lucid translation. Assaf Gavron has given us nothing less than a modern masterpiece.
- Reading List: Assaf Gavron
- Read Assaf Gavron’s Visiting Scribe Posts
- Reading List: Contemporary Israeli Literature
Read Beth Kissileff’s interview with Assaf Gavron here.