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Doron Rabinovici's novel "Elsewhere" - an excerpt


They took off; he was pressed into his seat. The aeroplane ascended steeply and banked. He looked out past his neighbour. Far below the city appeared: its chalk-white or pitch-black flat roofs, from which water tanks and solar panels were reflecting the glittering light. The tangle of aerials and electricity cables, the silhouettes of high-rise buildings, the Diamond Exchange, the shell-shaped Greek synagogue, the square in front of the Town Hall, Rabin Square, the avenues full of trees and Bauhaus and then a stump of the Old City complete with minaret and clock tower, a chunk of the past jutting into the water. Tel Aviv and Jaffa, the beach and after that nothing but water, and, together with the child that he used to be, he craned his neck towards the country that Father and Mother had pointed out to him back then when he, four years old, took off from here for the first time.
Homesickness or travel nerves – what was it that assaulted him? He was feverish from altitude: the boy he used to be is sitting between Mother and Father, crouching deep inside Ethan Rosen, lecturer at the Viennese Institute for Social Research. Ethanusch, Tuschtusch or Ethanni, as his mother used to call him, Young Finicky, as his father used to joke, is watching the stewardesses' pantomime: an ‘in case of emergency' ballet. The short skirts, the caps on pinned-up hair, dark tights and little Ethanni, eyes level with swishing nylon legs, stares at the exotic temple dance accompanied by the velvet monotony of a female voice. Take-off.
Nothing now remained of the ceremony of those high priestesses from his childhood, none of the finely choreographed movements that must have come over the clouds from a foreign world. Now a short film with security procedures was shown on screens that folded down. The nozzles overhead blasted dry, cold air. He knew that his skin tone from the last few days, more salmon-pink than golden-brown, would peel off flakily: he would arrive pale once again. His eyes itched. His lips burned. Nothing could relieve the migraine of the sociologist, Ethan Rosen. The pain increased, his skull became too tight. He had sat over his work until 3 o'clock in the morning, writing an essay in German on transculturality in Hebrew literature and then a commentary for an Israeli newspaper in Hebrew, a polemic against every kind of legitimization of torture. Rosen wrote such journalistic articles with cold anger. He fired off these texts like small packets filled with dynamite or like a battery of firecrackers: fifteen minutes for five thousand characters. Whereas he drily prepared his scientific studies, he frothed in his commentaries, pouring emotions into them that he denied himself as a researcher.
Rosen was known for his polished wording in German, Hebrew, English and French. More than a few were impressed by his ability to read Italian and Spanish and understand Arabic. Some tattled that his propositions and theories were nothing more than translations of the many ideas that he picked up here and there. He conducted an export trade with academic ideas. He profited from wandering around among continents and continuities, amid regions and religions. But it was not a friendly interest in the world that spurred him on: his intuitions and notions were fed by fear. Ethan's distrust was applied to civilisations and ideologies, he wrote along fault lines.
It was no coincidence that he had been asked to write an obituary for Dov Zedek. First by Katharina, the old man's forty-year-old girlfriend: since his death, she had developed a passion that Ethan had never noticed in her when Dov was alive. And then Fred Sammler, the editor of a Viennese newspaper, had phoned him in Tel Aviv: if he was travelling to Tel Aviv anyway to bury his old friend, surely he could come up with a few personal words of acknowledgement, Sammler said, a farewell to Dov Zedek for the Austrian readers.
Ethan had refused: a funeral orator was something he never wanted to or could be; he was not even prepared to make a birthday toast. At the cemetery, he had embraced Katharina. Despite the tearstained faces all around him, he was not capable of showing emotion or crying. In the spotlight of the midday sun, right in the centre of the cemetery grounds, the group of mourners appeared to shrink. To him it was as if each person who had found the way there was shrivelling. This place exuded nothing of Christian churchyards that sought to be shady places of contemplation: nothing forgiving could be found. As opposed to Catholic burials, neither flowers nor wreaths offered comfort, no chapel or orchestra could be heard, and no imposing family crypt awaited visitors.
The rabbi's song was reminiscent of a lament. The corpse was not inside a coffin but was covered in a black cloth. Beneath it, Dov's body, that had always been so powerful, seemed small and frail: for a moment, Ethan thought that a different person was lying there.
He had only been in Israel for four days and immediately after his arrival he had driven for the funeral to Jerusalem, where Dov had lived for the past two decades: shiva in Dov's apartment. He could not put out of his mind the many discussions and arguments he had had with Dov. The next morning, he had taken the opportunity to visit a colleague from the Hebrew University: discussions about possible cooperations. It was not until the third day that he headed for Tel Aviv for a visit to his parents. His mother had taken him aside to talk but his father had intervened, he wanted to get going to his local bar. Saying goodbye, her penetrating gaze, time-proven since his childhood: Father would have a thorough examination the day after tomorrow in hospital.
During the return flight, he wanted to read a dissertation. Exhaustion made him shaky; he felt as if it was blanching him away, dissolving him. Not only his body but his thoughts too were losing consistency. And then he had the impression that everyone could see how he was feeling; they must have been able to see through him because he felt transparent, had worked through the last few days and had slept less than three hours the night before. At the same time, he was ashamed of these thoughts. He knew that everyone around him had been up in the middle of the night. Who here wasn't tired out? They were hanging over their seat straps. Everything was in limbo. Detached.
Hours before take-off, the passengers had already arrived at the airport. Only the day before yesterday, the attack in the inner city. He had vaguely known the bar. The emergency troops that were filmed as they picked the scraps of human flesh and bits of corpses off the floor, scraped them from the walls and stuck them into plastic bags.
On his left a woman, in her mid-seventies with a wax-white, made-up face, a lizard with a crocodile handbag, hair platinum blonde. On her right hand was a diamond ring whose companion was located in the pendant of her necklace. She was wearing a carmine red, damask suit with dull gold buttons; the silk material glittered with the garlands of flowers woven into it: Ethan Rose was reminded of the Chinese wallpaper pattern in Versailles. The secret Polish-Jewish Mother of the Sun King Louis Quatorze, the mother of all absolutist powers. As he briefly glanced in her direction, she caught his eye. She nodded to him as if she knew him.
On his right, a fat Orthodox Jew. He bent straight down to a bag and took out a velvet box in which his prayer book and prayer straps were stored.
Why did he, of all people, have to sit next to this revenant, thought Ethan, this ruminant of the scriptures, who, with his sidelocks, his woolly hair and his long beard, reminded him of a sheep. Such men only wanted to pray; he would rock back and forth during the entire flight. How was he supposed to work then? A week ago, on the way from Vienna to Tel Aviv, he had also sat next to a devout man but the ceremonials had not disturbed him: on the contrary. They had both been immersed, each in his own world. What made this religious believer different from the other? On that occasion, he had been looking at the Original Jew, had kept an eye on him, ready to protect him from any disapproving stares, ready to oppose anyone who wrinkled his nose at the black caftan and the broad-rimmed hat. Now, in the opposite direction, from East to West, he noticed the fusty, sweetish odour of this man who was dressed too warmly and the whiff reminded him of the cemetery, of the rabbi and the cantor he had seen at Dov's grave, of the prayers and laments that they had chanted. Now he was the one who was looking at the praying man in disapproval, watching as he bound his greasy prayer straps around his left arm and head: the opening of the book, the murmuring rumble, the attempt to sway back and forth, to rock himself. But there was no space. The body seemed to be encased in fat and Ethan was put in mind of an enormous caterpillar that would not emerge from its chrysalis, would not develop into a butterfly until the Messiah had appeared.


Translation: Translated by Lucy Renner Jones @ Transfiction
© Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin 2010

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