Michal Govrin, award-winning writer, poet and theater director, has achieved an impressive accomplishment with Snapshots, her second novel (translated from Hebrew to English by Barbara Harshav). In just the second paragraph, Snapshots readers discover that Ilana Tsuriel has recently died in an automobile accident. In spite of that knowledge, readers quickly become entranced with the complex and compelling character of “Lana.” Govrin writes so convincingly that Ilana rises from the crash to become an incredibly real, flawed, talented, selfish and loved woman about whom we care deeply. I found myself rushing through the pages to discover not only the details of Ilana’s final months but also the background story that had led her to such personal despair and public success. The novel becomes almost like a mystery (although readers know both the personal and historical outcomes in advance), building to an understanding of Ilana’s private feelings and the specifics of her death.
Estranged and now made a widower, husband Alain hands over Ilana’s notebooks, written in Hebrew, to be translated by her youth movement friend Tirsa. This narrative device gives readers a glimpse of the dazzling Ilana through Tirsa’s eyes before presenting pivotal moments as remembered and reflected upon by Ilana. Her writings also provide essential details about her celebrated work as an architect, complete with sketches. Actual snapshots join disjointed musings about life in New Jersey, Paris and Jerusalem. This is more than the retelling of passing time: the journals capture Ilana’s artistic vision and charismatic personality as well as her inner doubts, difficulties and penetrating grief. Many of the letters are belated conversations with her recently deceased father, explaining difficult decisions.
At first glance, Ilana seems to exist in a golden light, not only beautiful but also talented and accomplished. She was, in fact, a slightly absent mother, unfaithful wife, needy adulteress, and obsessively devoted daughter (in spirit but not in fact). As Tirsa says, “The expression that comes to mind -- ‘sincere charity’ -- may fit.” Ilana judges her existence much more harshly. After tossing spoiled meat in a trash can baking in the sun, she reflects that the resulting maggots are displaying for all what is normally concealed, just like in her life.
The author makes it clear - particularly through the sections recalling Ilana’s father and his involvement in the Zionist movement - that her protagonist’s sadness actually began over conflict concerning her Jewish heritage. The frankness with which Ilana judges herself, her religion and her country is refreshing, yet she has an enormous pride for the role her father and other relatives, particularly a treasured cousin, have played in national history. The affair with the seductive Palestinian Sayyid exemplifies just how far Ilana has strayed from her upbringing and her all too personal understanding of the Arab predicament.
Winning the bid for the UNESCO peace monument in Israel by designing “Mount Sabbatical and a Settlement of Huts” for fostering international living and study, Ilana works to make her dream of peaceful cooperation a reality. The play planned for the commemorative laying of the cornerstone will be a controversial one performed by Sayyid’s reluctant troupe.
Ilana’s descriptions of life in Jerusalem during the first Gulf War (and the desperate phone calls she receives from Alain, area relatives, far-flung friends and coworkers), provide a chilling window into the world of civilians trapped by modern warfare. Unfortunately, Snapshots reinforces the sense of despair about a lasting peace in a region where diverse populations have historical and religious roots and have all experienced discrimination, suffering and extermination. Govrin also succinctly expresses despair over the media’s use of war footage as television programming:
“Who knows the price on the stock market of the legs of a woman, who was sitting with a gas mask on, when the wall of her home collapsed on her, mutilating her legs, her stomach? What is the price of her blood in a crushed bathrobe and disheveled hair, with stock market rates crawling across her head?”
Snapshots won Israel’s Akum Prize. Govrin’s other published works include The Name, Hold on to the Sun, Stories and Legends, That Very Hour, That Night’s Seder and Words’ Bodies. Her father was one of Israel’s pioneers, her mother a Holocaust survivor. A teacher at the School of Visual Theater in Jerusalem and a part-time writer-in-residence at Rutgers University, Govrin splits her time between Jerusalem and New Jersey.