Hercule Poirot: The question is, can Hercule Poirot possibly by wrong?
Mrs. Lorrimer: No one can always be right.
Hercule Poirot: But I am! Always I am right. It is so invariable it startles me. And now it looks very much as though I may be wrong, and that upsets me. But I should not be upset, because I am right. I must be right because I am never wrong.
With A Possibility of Violence, the certainty of a great discussion (accompanied by some brief detective digressions)
On Tuesday, the Usual Suspects enjoyed an exceptionally bracing discussion. D.A. Mishani’s A Possibility of Violence lent itself to analysis on many levels. In fact, the very issue of its Israeli setting and Hebrew language authorship got us going in a variety of different directions.
This title being Pauline’s choice, she gave us some very interesting background on contemporary Israel in general and the Israeli police in particular. It seems that until recently this force was given scant respect by the public. This was partly due to the fact that a majority of its members are drawn from the Sephardic or the Mizrachi communities. This prompted a need for clarification of those terms, along with the term Ashkenazi, for those who were not familiar with them. (Useful elucidation can be found on the site My Jewish Learning.)
Dror Mishani was working on a doctoral dissertation at Cambridge when he met his wife, who was teaching there. Somehow the dissertation never got written. But The Missing File, first entry in the Inspector Avraham Avraham series, did. (Our book, A Possibility of Violence, is second.) Both titles have been well received by critics and readers alike – with good reason, most (but not all) of us thought. Mishani, a lifelong lover of crime fiction, is on the Humanities faculty of the University of Tel Aviv.
In this interview with Lidia Jean Kott of NPR, Mishani explains among other points why there’s such a paucity of Israeli mystery writers.
Our discussion was so lively and wide ranging, it took some doing to get us focused on the novel. Pauline had prepared discussion questions for us. With one of them, we were asked whether A Possibility of Violence was more plot driven or character driven? Or was it both? I can’t recall what was concluded by the group, but for myself, I believe it was both, and that was one of the novel’s primary strengths.
The story begins with the discovery of an unattended suitcase left outside a day care facility. A man named Chaim Sara has a son enrolled there. In addition, he has an older son in grammar school. There is a mystery about the Sara family: the children’s mother, Chaim’s wife Jenny, a Philippine national, is not living with them. Chaim claims that she has gone back to her native country to attend to her sick father. But something about his story does not ring true.
An aside at this point: people had difficulty pronouncing the name ‘Chaim.’ The guttural sound at the beginning was the main problem. There is no equivalent for it in English. Later, I recalled that in the past, that sound was rendered as the letter ‘h,’ rather than ‘ch.’ I was also thinking that if the speaker has any familiarity with the French, German, or Russian languages, he or she has a better chance of being able to produce that guttural.
At any rate, here’s a little YouTube snippet to help out:
(He sounds rather tragic, don’t you think?)
The depiction of Chaim Sara, we agreed, is one of this novel’s most impressive achievements. One cannot help but care about him and feel anxiety about his fate. At the same time, the reader yearns to penetrate his secret. And all this time, his fierce devotion to his sons is bodied forth as the most basic aspect of his existence.
This fact makes it all the vexing that Avi – Avraham Avraham – catches hold of the wrong end of the stick where Chaim is concerned and simply won’t let go until he’s forced to. But there’s a reason for this, and it has to do with a previous case as set forth in The Missing File, the first book in the series. It’s a reason, but it does not excuse Avi’s wrongheadedness. Some in the group understandably disliked him for it and douted his abilities as a detective. We did agree that he is made in the mold of the doubting policeman, who lacks complete confidence in himself. In addition, he is deeply anxious concerning an uncertain element in his personal life: his love for Marianka, a police detective in Belgium. Will this relationship achieve the fruition he so earnestly desires?
This is one of my favorite from among Pauline’s excellent discussion questions: “Is it more satisfying to read about such a flawed investigator or do you prefer a more competent detective such as Montalbano, Brunetti, Maigret, Poirot, etc.?” She then adds: “None of these examples seems to suffer from self-doubt.”
That was enjoyable concept to kick around for a while! (I couldn’t help suggesting that Reg Wexford be added to the list.) A post I did in 2007 entitled The fictional British policeman, in all his (or her) vulnerable glory may be of interest in this context.
Upon second thought, I think there’s something of a continuum here. At one end of the spectrum, the Crown Prince of Rectitude has got to be Hercule Poirot. Here is but one instance of many, from Cards on the Table:
Hercule Poirot: The question is, can Hercule Poirot possibly by wrong?
Maigret does proceed with a slow and quiet assurance that rarely admits of a major gaffe. Brunetti and Wexford, I think, are somewhat more tentative in their intuitions and actions. All three possess the distinct advantage of having supportive and empathetic spouses. (I’m not sufficiently well read in the Montalbano books to comment one way or the other.)
Well, this is a bit of a digression, but the discussion itself was filled with them. (At one point, Frances spoke of the pleasure she derives from these “beside the point” yet provocative meanderings.)
In an interview in Krimi-Couch, an online German mystery magazine, Mishani states:
I’m not trying to write a page-turner, I’m trying to write literature, using the detective genre. So for me, a literary crime novel is a novel about crime, but not only about crime (it is also about society, about language, about literature, about the genre itself etc …)
Pauline shared this quote with us, and then asked us to comment on whether we thought Mishani had achieved this goal in A Possibility of Violence. Naturally the question arose as to what criteria we would apply in this instance. How was the quality of the writing and, by implication, the translation? Were larger themes bodied forth in the narrative? Did the author manage to advance the story according to the maxim, Show, Don’t Tell? Were the motivations of the main characters credible? Was the psychology of the main characters set forth in a believable way? Did the logistics of the plot make sense?
I’m not sure whether we reached a consensus. Some of us had been hoping that more of the sights and sounds of Israel would be featured in the book. On the other hand, the writing was generally praised. It was felt by most, if not quite all of us, that the characters were consistent, believable, and – most important – interesting. Frank was especially impressed by how Mishani generated suspense consistently throughout the novel. He did this through the characters’ distinct personalities, particularly that of Chaim Sara. (Of late, Frank’s writerly perspective has added greatly to our discussions.)
Pauline provided us with the names of some other authors who take as their subject Israel or Palestine. (There are others, but they’ve not yet been translated into English):
Matt Beynon Rees
Before the meeting, she had sent us a link to an article called Reading Israel. Also, it turns out that the Washington DC Jewish Community Center is hosting a Jewish Literary Festival from the 18th to the 28th. Some of the participating writers are David Bezmozgis, Etgar Keret, Laura Vapnyar, and Michael Pollan.
Pauline has a friend who has met Dror Mishani. She asked her friend to e-mail him and ask when his next Avraham Avraham novel will be available for English speakers to read. He responded that it should be out in a few months and that he’s currently reviewing the translation. The book’s title is The Man Who Wanted To Know. As for us, we’re the book group that wants to know! I think most of us plan to read it when it becomes available.
Pauline’s friend also found out that Mishani is currently in the U.S. teaching at the University of Massachusetts until January, at which time he will probably be relieved to be departing New England’s notorious winter for the warmer climes of the Middle East. He expressed himself happy and willing to talk to our group if we’re close by. Louise immediately suggested a field trip!
We agreed that this series would be great for television. We’ve now got detectives from Sweden, Italy, France, and doubtless other countries on the small screen. Come on, Israel! This could be your moment.
I have no doubt that I’ve omitted plenty and possibly made some errors. Therefore: corrections, questions, comments, and clarifications are all welcome, either here on WordPress or via Facebook.