The Ascent of Eli Israel

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

During the eighteen months Canadian Jon Papernick spent in Israel in 1995 and 1996 writing reports for UPI, he not only described the political turmoil in that war-torn country, he also observed how the struggle was reflected in the lives of individuals. The result is The Ascent of Eli Israel: And Other Stories, an uneven group of stories that range from the predictable to the unsettling.

The most effective story is “An Unwelcome Guest,” in which a young American Jew studying in Israel is startled one night to find an old Arab sitting in his kitchen. Claiming that the house is his home, the Arab challenges the young man to a backgammon game which becomes increasingly representative of the cultural conflict. As the Arab’s son, wife, and other relatives crowd into the house, growing more belligerent, the spooky surreal story comes to a horrifying climax with the old man’s son emerging from the student’s pregnant wife’s bedroom with a bloody broken bottle.

More studied is the story “Malchyk,” in which a twelve-year-old boy wraps a machine gun in a blanket, and dodges sniper bullets as he heads out across no-man’s land to find his father fighting in Jerusalem after the 1949 declaration of a Jewish state. By presenting the origins of the current conflict through the eyes of a child, the story seems calculated and cliched, ending in simplistic sentimentality.

Some of the stories, such as “The Art of Correcting” and “The King of the King of Falafel,” are comic set pieces emblematic of the Arab/Israel conflict. More ambitious and chilling is the title piece in which a New York television producer, called to the West Bank by God, ends up killing a Palestinian boy who is throwing rocks at his car.

Most of these stories are relatively simple, plot-based pieces that make individuals emblematic of the deep- seated cultural conflicts in one of the most strife-torn areas in the modern world.