The Sound of Our Steps

Ronit Mat­alon; Dalya Bilu, trans.
  • Review
By – August 6, 2015

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.

Relat­ed Content:

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and edi­tor of the forth­com­ing book Amos Oz: The Lega­cy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.

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