A particle physicist debuts with 17 stories, set largely in Israel, that capture something of the elusive quality of human dynamics, with unknown quantities and energies always seeming to play a part.
An Arab suicide bomber on the streets of Jerusalem is accosted by tourists to take their picture, in the story told within “A Story about a Bomb,” but the narrator’s lengthy search for the author of the bomber story leads him to a strange encounter—and the line between reality and fiction in that story becomes impossible to draw. “I May Be a Ghost but I’m Not a Slut” features an aging ambulance driver in a Tel Aviv café before his night shift who begins a conversation with a pale young woman in black next to him; she gets him talking about the suicides he’s seen, then tells him she is one herself and tries to get him to pass along a note to her lover. In “Mr. Fig and Mr. Pineapple” (the names of adjacent fruit stores), a middle-aged man tries to describe “The Incident,” which involved a platonic relationship the man had with a married woman; it began with a basket of strawberries and ended when the man’s wife happened to see the two of them on the TV news as they watched Mr. Pineapple burn. Finally, in the title story, a visitor to an Arab home in Nablus, while sipping tea, hears the tale of his host’s family: they were once rich and powerful enough to attract the enmity of the Sultan, who sent them the gift of an elephant, which they then had to keep alive; worse, the Sultan then came to see it and them, a visit which brought death and ruin to the family.
Tempered emotions and yearnings of the young and old define Tel’s stories: a pervasive sense of things gone amiss settles foglike among sharply defined moments to create some memorable scenes.