Friday, January 15, 2010

131 (2010 #6). BenHazar, Son to a Stranger

by Aron Shai
translated from Hebrew by Dalia Bilu

I won this book in the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in late September 2009, but the book did not arrive until at least two months later, right in the heart of the Christmas season. The book is only 204 pages and I finally got around to reading it after the previous interlibrary loan books were returned.

As noted in a line of text running along the top of the front cover, this self-described historical novel has a variety of settings in time and place: World War II, pre-1948 Jerusalem, Oxford, Greece (specifically Ioannina), Hong Kong, and the Yom Kippur War (October 1973). The book actually begins five years earlier, when 25-year-old Benhazar (which in Hebrew means "son to a stranger") Cohen tries to find out about the strange secret life of his father, Jochanan, who has recently died in a suspicious fire.

For many readers like me, this book suffers from the author's assumption of reader familiarity with Israeli history, as well as perhaps an awkward translation from the original Hebrew. Unfortunately, the story was not interesting enough to do what good historical fiction does for me, which is to inspire me to learn more about the historical setting (time and place). Three eras and four locations in only 204 pages didn't help. I did read a little about Ioannina and the aforementioned war, and I was intrigued by the use of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) in the dialogue.

I was not inspired, however, to read more about the complicated political situations and people that Jochanan was involved in with Japan, Israel, Great Britain, Hong Kong, India, and Burma. The author is a professor of history and East Asian studies and apparently wanted to incorporate his interests in the book. A blurb on the back of the book says "Many of the events in this fascinating and suspenseful novel are based on actual historical events disclosed for the very first time," but it's not clear what those events are. The book might have benefitted from an afterword. BenHazar makes an rambling political speech at his wedding, and that and the epilogue are apparently the author's theories about reaching peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The most interesting part of the book was the chapter about Jochanan's sister Sarina and her family hiding from the Nazis in Ioannina during World War II, apparently aided by a German soldier named Hans who was in love with Sarina. She is the most interesting character in the book. BenHazar's mother Irena is mildly intriguing, but like many other characters in the book, she is a caricature, confined to a mental institution for unexplained reasons. Another character's disappearance is supposed to be significant, but it's never explained why.

This book was confusing and rather boring, and I can't recommend it. Thank goodness it was a quick read.

[This book came from the publisher, Gefen, via LibraryThing. It will be donated to the local nonprofit Friends of the Library for their fundraising book sale.]

No comments:

Post a Comment