| Beyond the wall
Someone to Run With By David Grossman, Bloomsbury, £10.99
In the strange, winding streets of Jerusalem, bustling with old shops and genteel customers, 16-year-old Assaf is searching for a dog’s owner. The search takes him to a monastery where a Greek nun has lived in seclusion for the last 50 years, then to an abandoned Arab village occupied by armed and druggy young Russian squatters. It culminates in a chase from the mafia, before the dog finally leads him to her owner, 15-year-old Tamar. In the course of this chase, shy, introverted Assaf has fallen in love with Tamar.
But the book is not about teenage love. The names of its chief protagonists and the city endow it with considerably more seriousness. David Grossman won Israel’s highest award, the Sapir prize, for this book. In his more serious journalistic work, Grossman raises questions at the heart of the west Asia conflict. As a Way of Life is notable for its frank examination of a country racked by “pointless death”. Grossman’ s first novel, The Smile of the Lambs, was also inspired by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
In Someone to Run With, Grossman shows us the world through the eyes of Assaf, an awkward teenager looking for true love. Assaf is also uncomfortable with sorting out the more complex political debates of his time. Israel is a country where peace is an anachronism. It seems out of place because deep ideological divisions exacerbate ordinary family tensions. During Gulf war, we read, “Rhino had bought a ten-thousand-piece puzzle of the Swiss Alps and brought it to Reli (Assaf’s sister) and her parents, to try and ease the tensions of the evening hours between the shelter siren and the All Clear.” Assaf’s mother soon dropped out, “saying that even Saddam’s missiles were better than this Swiss torture”.
Such observations pepper this love-adventure story of Assaf’s knightly quest for Tamar, Dinka’s owner. Assaf meets Dinka in a home for lost animals where he has a summer job. It falls on Assaf to return her to her rightful owner. As Dinka rushes round Jerusalem, following the scent of her mistress, Assaf is dragged after her, “adjust(ing) his step to match hers, and filled with warmth at the pleasure of his new synchronicity with her”. From the scraps of information he picks up on Tamar, Assaf becomes fascinated. As he tracks down clues, overcomes dangers and rethinks his relationships with family and friends, his adolescent gaucheness is slowly transformed.
Grossman shapes the novel between the two main narrative voices of Assaf and Tamar.While Assaf’s story is more straightforward, Tamar’s unravels layer by layer. Tamar, it appears, has made a conscious decision to lose herself in the criminal underworld in order to rescue her brother, Shai. The mafia controls thousands of performing street-children, earns money through them while converting them into heroin addicts. Shai, a talented guitarist is one such victim.
Passing up a chance to go on tour in Italy with her choir, Tamar takes to the streets and starts singing. Her aim is to be spotted by a talent scout who will lead her to the gang of thugs, drug-dealers and pick-pockets. Her plan succeeds and soon enough, she devises another plan to escape with her brother. They make a quick getaway, only to be pursued by the mafia. In the end, everything turns out fine, even Shai returns to normality. The novel, slow in the beginning, has its end a bit stretched out.
But the novel does have unexpected twists and is structured like a computer game (Assaf is fond of playing them). Someone to Run With is basically an exuberant, ingenious and brilliantly executed piece of entertainment. Its sharp glimpses of an unfamiliar Israel raise it well above mere escapism.