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BLISS by Ronit Matalon


by Ronit Matalon & translated by Jessica Cohen

Pub Date: Aug. 12th, 2003
ISBN: 0-8050-6602-0
Publisher: Henry Holt

A circuitous second novel by Israeli author Matalon (The One Facing Us, 1998), told in flashbacks, follows a soured friendship between two Tel Aviv women during the years of intifada.

Past and present events dart in and out of this many-faceted, frequently ambiguous narrative: By the time narrator Ofra and her best friend from childhood, Sarah, bid goodbye at the Tel Aviv airport (Ofra is boarding her flight to France, where she’ll attend the funeral of her AIDS-stricken cousin), the two 35-year-old friends have already grown estranged over the derailment of Sarah’s marriage after her reckless affair with a young Arab man. Sarah is a political bleeding-heart photographer who champions the Palestinian cause, while Ofra, a plain, selfless graduate student, maintains the academic distance of a wary observer as Sarah throws herself into dramas both domestic and national. Her impulsive marriage to army medic Udi produces her son, Mims, and a seemingly blissful arrangement whereby Ofra contributes equally to the care of the boy; yet Sarah’s ambivalence about motherhood and marriage prompts her to fall for an arrogant Palestinian, Marwan, whose family and social constraints eventually lead him to dump her brutally. Meanwhile, in France, a separate storyline begins, this involving Ofra’s extended French family as they cope with bruised feelings pertaining to the funeral of gay cousin Michel, whose grievance with the French airline he (and his father) worked for remains unclear. It may be that much here suffers in translation—a kind of coy obliqueness, for example, about Arab-Jewish relations (and also Jewish-Gentile dealings in French society) that may not be immediately graspable by the American reader. “Bugs trapped inside a jar, that’s what we are here,” Udi comments, seemingly referring to the Israeli penchant for euphemism and self-deception. Too, the climax involving Sarah’s beating is buried under disorienting layers of narrative back-and-forth, and her erratic behavior in switching between Udi and Marwan appears merely self-serving and unworthy of Ofra’s earnest friendship.

Imperfect and mis-titled yet incisive, Bliss provides a colloquial glimpse at the Israeli social fabric.