THE DEBBA by Avner Mandelman


Email this review


In his first novel, Mandelman (Talking to the Enemy: stories, 2005) writes of identity, intrigue, Israeli politics and murder.

On learning of the murder of his father, David Starkman, an ex-pat now living in Canada, returns to Israel to find that his father’s will has put him under an unusual obligation—to produce a play, The Debba, within 45 days of his father’s death, a play that had been performed only once before, in 1946, and had at that time created a riot. (A debba is a mythical shape-changing beast from Arab culture, one that can turn from a hyena into a man. While Arabs see it in heroic terms, Israelis see it as inflaming political tensions.) Starkman is so bitter about being both Israeli and being his father’s son that at first he willingly forgoes the opportunity to produce the play even though he will only realize his modest legacy of $65,000 if he meets the theatrical obligation. He believes it’s just not worth the trouble, but after reading the play he begins to get intrigued by the possibilities. In Canada he left behind his girlfriend, Jenny, but once back in his home country he begins a torrid affair with Ruthy, an old flame (also an actress) now engaged to be married to his best friend Ehud. The novel follows multiple narrative threads, from policemen trying to crack the case of the father’s violent end to the endless difficulties of getting the play on the boards. Actors are threatened or physically assaulted, possible venues for staging the play are vandalized, young Israelis—followers of radical rabbi Meyer Kahane—protest the whole idea of putting on the drama…and this action plays out against the backdrop of the 1977 Israeli elections. Through it all Starkman perseveres, moving from cynical indifference to rabid commitment. Along the way he finds out secrets about his identity and especially about his father’s past.

An absorbing and captivating novel that bridges the uncomfortable political gap between the Palestinian and Israeli sides.

Pub Date: July 13th, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-59051-370-5
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Other Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2010