Friday, August 16, 2013


As I lived in the Mideast for two years back in the 70’s, I’m aware that life in that corner of the world can provide rich material for a novel, a book of non-fiction or poetry. I’ve written three books about my sojourn in Iran, and frequently contemplate finishing another novel about the country that I lived in during the reign of the Shahanshah. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Perle Besserman’s newest novel, Widow Zion, incorporates her descriptions of and experiences in the Mideast and as writer-in-residence at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Artists’ Colony in Jerusalem.
Published by Pinyon Publishing a few weeks ago, Widow Zion is a serious read about the complex Middle East. The novel quickly moves a prosperous Jewish American widow from New York and Miami to a Holy Land Tour in the chaotic world of Jerusalem during the years that Clinton sponsored the Camp David peace talks between Arafat and Rabin and the struggle between Jews and Arabs at that time. The apt quotation by Toni Craven preceding the beginning of the novel sets the scene for the contemporary battle between Palestine and Israel: “That Zion is a devastated mother is understandable; that she is a widow raises a troubling question; who and where is her husband?”
The disturbing adventures of Stella, a widow who seeks love amid this Mideast background following the death of her husband and the suicide of her beloved son, reveal a woman who seems to possess more romantic notions than good sense. Stella discards all vestiges of her former life, except her enormous wealth, and attempts to seduce Aryeh, her guide, in explorations of Jerusalem. Aryeh grieves the death of his wife, suffers from the effects of Israel’s endless battles, and daily ruminates about family destroyed during the Holocaust. Leo, Aryeh’s cousin who is a Holocaust survivor, tries to persuade Aryeh to pursue Stella for material gain, but he also introduces the spiritual aspects of this novel through his beliefs about tikkun or the re-ordering of a broken world.
I was alarmed by the widow throwing away all caution in her search for love–offering bribes, co-habiting with a black panther who abuses her, and finally succumbing to a stranger at her hotel, leaving us to wonder whether she found authentic love in this troubled world of the Mideast or experienced some kind of spiritual epiphany within this complicated construct.
Besserman’s descriptions of Jerusalem are stunning–she writes with the insights of a poet and the exactness of a journalist; e.g., “They walked slowly, Stella Richter occasionally stopping to comment on the creeping vines on every porch, the marigolds and pansies sprouting wildly, out of the cracks in the pavement, and the many pregnant cats that crossed their path. It took them almost forty-five minutes to walk all the way down to the Sea of Galilee (thought it should have taken no more than twenty) through the closed market smelling of fish and roasted sunflower seeds, past the movie theater, where Aryeh inquired about the performance schedule of the John Wayne Western in English with Hebrew sub-titles. Stella Richter had grown overheated with exertion and was panting–not unusual for a normally sedentary woman her age, which Aryeh estimated as sixty, his own…”
Besserman also introduces cultural differences among the nationalities milling about in Jerusalem, and I was amused at her description of differences between the Americans and the Brits when Aryeh makes the statement that because of their linguistic ties, Americans and British share a common cultural base. “The professor had shaken his wiry head and said, “No. They’re not the same at all. The difference between them, the big difference, is that the British draw boundaries between people and the Americans don’t…An American will meet you on a train for the first time and ask you what you do for a living or how much money you have in the bank or if you sleep in the nude. An Englishman will never ask you such personal question–not even after you’ve known him for a long time. The only thing I’ve heard them ask right away is, ‘What school did you attend?’ That is a very important piece of information with the British; it helps them distinguish between the people who count and those who don’t…”
Woven throughout the novel is the implicit message of universal spiritual emptiness that pervades most contemporary cultures and the hope that civilizations will resolve their differences and undergo spiritual renewal despite prevailing wars that beset Israel and the entire Mideast.
In reviewing this richly-textured novel, I couldn’t improve on the succinct blurb on the back cover, touting it as a story “based on the centuries’-old struggle between Jews and Arabs in its current Palestinian/Israeli incarnation–[a] contemporary re-telling of the ancient biblical story of exile and return that reveals the source of the so-called “clash of civilizations,” which lies within the Jewish Diaspora itself…”
Widow Zion is an arresting novel in which “the entire scene has become dreamlike, a heat-shimmering mirage,” written by a cosmopolitan author who has worked in the US, Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, China, and the Middle East. Her books have been recorded and released in both audio and e-book versions and translated into over ten languages.  She has written two previous novels, Pilgrimage and Kabuki Boy, and two story collections, Marriage and Other Travesties of Love and Yeshivo Girl. Besserman holds a doctorate in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and has lectured, toured, taught, and appeared on television, radio, and in two documentary films.
For those readers who have lived in the Mideast, Widow Zion is a “must read.” Order from Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403.

No comments: