Michael Lav­i­gnes first nov­el, Not Me, was the recip­i­ent of the Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award. His newest nov­el, The Want­i­ng, will be pub­lished by Schock­en Books on Feb­ru­ary 26th. Vis­it Michael on Face­book and vis­it his offi­cial web­site here. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

In my first nov­el, I wrote from the point of view of a Nazi. In my new nov­el, The Want­i­ng, I’ve tak­en on the per­sona of a sui­cide bomber from a vil­lage out­side of Beth­le­hem. And while this char­ac­ter, Amir, is only one of three dis­tinct voic­es in the book, his was the most painful to write and the most dif­fi­cult to come to terms with. On the one hand, he mur­ders scores of peo­ple – uncon­scionable and ter­ri­fy­ing. On the oth­er, he is also a per­son, not a mon­ster. It is that per­son with­in him I was try­ing to access in my writ­ing – but did I suc­ceed? And should I have even tried?

My friend and fel­low writer Jonathan Rosen (Joy Comes in the Morn­ing, The Life of the Skies) has some doubts on this score. He won­dered if I had cre­at­ed a moral equiv­a­len­cy between the vic­tim (in this case the Russ­ian Jew­ish immi­grant, Roman Guttman) and the vic­tim­iz­er (Amir). I hope Jonathan won’t mind if I quote from his email:

…my fear [is] that Jew­ish imag­i­na­tive sym­pa­thy some­times runs the risk of secret­ly being nar­cis­sism dis­guised as empa­thy, as we project the bet­ter angels of our nature out­ward in the name of human under­stand­ing and then have a dia­logue with our­selves. Ger­man Jews did it with Ger­mans, as Ger­shom Scholem argued so per­sua­sive­ly about Buber — I and Thou is some­times Me and Me.”

This, of course, begs the ques­tion of fic­tion writ­ing in gen­er­al – but with­out address­ing that (and Jonathan him­self told me he gen­uine­ly thinks writ­ers should be free to attempt any­thing and every­thing) I have to admit his mis­giv­ings give me pause. What is it we do when we write about the rad­i­cal oth­er, espe­cial­ly when this oth­er has declared itself our mor­tal ene­my and feels empow­ered to use any means, no mat­ter how repug­nant, to achieve its aim. Is it mere­ly an exer­cise in van­i­ty, a sort of hope against hope – wish­ing away the truth of the bar­bar­i­ty which con­fronts us?

I strug­gled with this from the onset. Just doing the research was painful in the extreme. Like pok­ing at a sore, I had to read page after page of vit­ri­ol aimed at Jews and Israelis. The writ­ings and rant­i­ngs of mul­lahs and rad­i­cal Islamists through­out the Mus­lim world fright­ened me, and our his­to­ry reminds me it is wise to be fright­ened. My con­ver­sa­tions with Pales­tini­ans and Israeli Arabs were of course less rife, but an under­ly­ing fury was nev­er very far from the sur­face. I did not feel safe. Add to that the painful and inevitable real­iza­tion of our own (my own) respon­si­bil­i­ty for the suf­fer­ing and thwart­ed ambi­tion of Pales­tin­ian peo­ple, and you can see how com­plex things became for me. Fear and guilt. Nev­er a good place to write from. 

So it’s not sur­pris­ing that my first char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of Amir were flat and life­less: in turns he was demon­ic, hate-crazed, and oth­er­world­ly – a kind of poet of cru­el­ty – in oth­ers he was com­ic and buf­foon­ish, a mind­less machine of vengeance. I was stuck, and it was not until my Israeli read­er, Michal Evron Yaniv, said, quite sim­ply, Just make him a per­son,” that I was remind­ed that my task as a nov­el­ist is to ren­der all my char­ac­ters with empa­thy – an empa­thy that extends through­out this awful sym­pho­ny of life. And I ful­ly admit that in the end I did per­verse­ly fall in love with Amir, because I came to see that he, too, is a vic­tim – not so much of the Israeli occu­pa­tion as of his own lim­it­ed expe­ri­ence and the agen­da of pow­er­ful forces far beyond his con­trol or abil­i­ty to understand. 

I believe I’ve cre­at­ed a vital and liv­ing char­ac­ter who demands our atten­tion and rewards our read­ing in a book I hope papers over noth­ing while attend­ing to the thing that mat­ters most: the human spirit. 

But should there be lim­its to a writer’s empathy? 

I wel­come your comments. 

Check back all week for more posts by Michael Lavigne.

Michael Lav­i­gne stud­ied at Millersville State Col­lege and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, where he did grad­u­ate work on the Com­mit­tee on Social Thought. His first nov­el, Not Me, received the Sami Rohr Choice Award. Lav­i­gne is a founder of the Tauber Jew­ish Stud­ies Pro­gram at Con­gre­ga­tion Emanu-El in San Fran­cis­co, and spent three years work­ing in the Sovi­et Union.