Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s novel One Night, Markovitch won the 2013 Sapir Prize for debut fiction; this week she releases Waking Lions, which recently received the 2017 Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize. Ayelet will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.
Telling a secret to a writer is like giving a hug to a pickpocket. I stole this sentence from Amos Oz or A. B. Yehoshua, I can’t remember which one. But I do remember, very clearly, the first time I became a pickpocket — the first story I stole.
I was visiting my boyfriend’s family in a village in the north of Israel, when I noticed a strange house behind their fence. The house wasn’t especially dark or remarkably mysterious. There was no ivy on the walls, no bats hanging from the roof, yet there was some kind of sadness coming out of that yard, the way other yards had the voices of children coming out of them, or the smell of barbecue.
“Beautiful Bella lives there,” my boyfriend replied. I gave him the look a girl gives to her boyfriend when he calls another girl beautiful, and he immediately added that Beautiful Bella was eighty years old, and the most miserable woman in the village.
Apparently, Bella was not just beautiful. She was really beautiful. The kind of woman who makes robins fly backwards, turtles run forward, and men freeze in place. But from among all the men who froze in place — and there were many who still did so — she was destined to marry the most worthless man in the village.
That was the first time I heard about the heroic mission that had gone terribly wrong. It happened more than sixty years ago, but everyone in the village had been talking about it ever since. They held on to their story like other villagers hold on to an area’s famous recipes or secret wines. I discovered that during the Second World War a group of Jewish farmers left Mandatory Palestine in order to get into Europe. Their plan was to fictively marry Jewish girls who weren’t allowed into Israel because of the British law of the time. These marriages of convenience were to save the girls from Nazi Europe and smuggle them in under the noses of the British. Once in Israel, the couples would all get divorces and continue with their lives. But that was not the case for beautiful Bella, who had been married by a farmer who was so stunned by her that he refused to let her go even after they reached the Promised Land. He held her against her will, under the power of religious law.
This story became the core of my first novel, One Night, Markovitch. Markovitch was the name of my protagonist, a name I chose to disguise the real man from the village. While I knew nothing of the real farmer, in the novel he’s depicted as the ultimate outsider, the kind nobody ever notices. I decided he must have been the type of person that the eye just cannot remember, that your gaze glides over, like the kids whose names no one knows at school. It’s this kind of man, I figured, who wouldn’t be able to let go of a lovely woman like Bella. He knew he’d never have such a chance again.
I changed the names of people and places, but as the book became successful, I started to fear — what if someone recognized himself in the lines of my novel? While I was waiting for the people from the village to knock at my door, the phone call from my grandmother came completely unexpectedly: “How could you do that to poor Markovitch?!”
While I was busy hiding the identity of the man from the village, I had given no thought to the name “Markovitch.” It had just popped out, and it seemed right. I completely forgot that my grandmother had a friend called Markovitch. Out of all of her friends, he was the most unmemorable; you forgot him a moment after you met him. And so had I.
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen holds an MA in clinical psychology from Tel Aviv University. A recipient of Israel’s prestigious Sapir Prize, she has worked for the Israeli civil rights movement and written award-winning fiction and screenplays.
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is the author of The Liar and Waking Lions, which won the JQ-Wingate Prize, was a New York Times Notable Book, and has been published in seventeen countries. She is a clinical psychologist, has worked for the Israeli civil rights movement, and is an award-winning screenwriter. She won Israel’s prestigious Sapir Prize for best debut.