Few Israeli novelists tackle the complexity of exilic identity with such perspicacity as Ronit Matalon. Born in 1959, Matalon is the child of Arabic- and French-speaking immigrants who were profoundly unhappy in their new society. Her father, a Communist outraged by Israel’s oppression of Mizrahi Jews by its Ashkenazi elite, abandoned the family, leaving her mother, whose family once enjoyed wealth and status in Cairo, to work for twelve hours a day as a cleaning woman in order to care for her three children as well as Ronit’s grandmother.
Matalon draws on that painful family history legacy to great effect in The Sound of Our Steps, her most accomplished as well as her most explicitly autobiographical novel, poetically revisiting family history and memories of growing up in the 1960s. Lucette, the ever-scheming mother at the heart of the story, her three children and the derelict immigrant slum they inhabit all possess an exciting verisimilitude that leaps from the page. Matalon brilliantly juxtaposes the rawness of childhood experience (her persona identified here only as “the child”) with an adult’s seasoned perspective. Perhaps it required the distance of all these years to finally tell this intimate story, one of the most emotionally immersive and psychologically gripping reading experiences that one could hope for.
A tireless but increasingly unstable warrior, Lucette struggles frantically to eke out a decent life while ever homesick for her vibrant, irretrievable past in Egyptian high society. Lucette’s physical and emotional volatility, the invariably unfortunate outcomes of her relentless scheming, her impossible struggle to regain something of her lost sense of belonging, make for truly harrowing reading. Still, Matalon’s deeply empathic portrayal ensures that no matter how tempestuous, Lucette is never less than a profoundly sympathetic figure.
Just as she memorably illuminates her characters’ inner landscapes, their thwarted hopes and dreams, Matalon adroitly portrays the Jewish state’s social iniquities that bring the family so low and inhibit any real progress. In a series of excerpts from a sort of political diary kept by Maurice, the child’s absent father, we see his anger and frustration over the government’s undemocratic and racist discrimination toward its Mizrahi citizens, a failed doctrine he identifies as “Ben-Gurionism.” He even disparages Israel’s humiliation of the Egyptian people during the Six-Day War. Yet even as Maurice condemns the government’s lack of compassion, his neglect of his own family is all too apparent.
A wonderful interrogation of the meaning of home, belonging, and the past’s unyielding claim on us, The Sound of Our Steps is a truly epic achievement, a tapestry of richly associational vignettes vividly explored from different perspectives; a journey of many unexpected twists and turns, encompassing the comedy as well as tragedy of a genuinely unforgettable family. To Matalon’s credit, her myriad deviations and narrative offshoots never seem extraneous, but rather complete an elusive Israeli past that always feels as wholly authentic as it does strange. Most importantly, while resolutely unsentimental and anti-nostalgic, this is a book that seems positively brimming with love for all of its flawed characters. Translator Dalya Bilu superbly captures Matalon’s intensely lyrical and demanding language, especially the family’s exilic speech: a colorful collage of Arabic, French, and Hebrew.
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