“The book wrote itself more than being written by me.” Sometimes authors say this and it sounds mystical, self-important, false—yet when Ronit Matalon says it about her new novel, The Sound of Our Steps, it makes total sense. The novel’s mysteries seem to run too deep and its characters seem too archetypal to have come from a conscious mind. Instead, the book seems pulled from memory—not the kind a memoirist probes when sitting down to work, but the kind a hypnotist unveils: involuntary, surprising. This novel seems revealed, not created.
The easiest way to describe it is to say it’s a novel about an Egyptian-Jewish family of immigrants living on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. Lucette is the mother, a towering and capricious figure, alternately frightening and fascinating to her three children, the youngest of whom narrates, sometimes embedded in childhood, other times removed from it and narrating scenes as an adult. It makes perfect sense that the narrator begins focused on her mother’s steps—or rather, the absence of the sound. Even when absent, her mother is always there.
Matalon’s novel lacks a conventional plot, instead taking place over a series of short, dense chapters, each one, as Matalon puts it, “shaped from the last words of its predecessor. I drew out of myself a long string of pearls, never knowing what [would] be the next pearl.” Amazingly, the sequence of the published book is the exact sequence in which Matalon first wrote it, changing nothing. She likens the book to a “drowned ship, drawn out from the depths of the ocean. I saw it in its entirety only when it reached sea level.”
When I mention that the book’s form reminds me of a broken mirror, Matalon agrees, saying that the “structure of fragments, pieces of a broken mirror, has its internal logic. It does not represent chaos or disorder. True, the logic of splinters is not the usual logic. The reader must put aside the logic of linear sequence, and enter a different music of continuity and memory.” For her part, Matalon found writing the book to be an effort, but one “accompanied by a sense of amazing lightness, almost of levitation.”
Not all readers will share Matalon’s feeling of lightness. Many may find the book a challenge, but reading it “requires an effort to allow oneself to get lost,” Matalon says, “or to feel lost, at least at first. It requires trust in my writing hand. Our present period bombards us with demands to be oriented, with information allowing orientation. But the human soul moves in vast spaces of disorientation; this is its authentic music: darkness, coincidence.” Is this a combative gesture toward her reader? Not at all. “In my mind’s eye,” Matalon says, “the reader of my book is the most sensitive, the most attentive, even the most courageous person. I wish to tell my reader: the different logic of this novel works in your favor, not against you.”
At this point, I should be clear that the novel’s structure does not make it unpleasant; if anything, its fractured effect enhances what otherwise might be a conventional coming-of-age story. What makes The Sound of Our Steps interesting is how in flux it seems; as a reader, whenever I’d figured out my feelings about a character, another short scene would complicate them. Matalon feels this way too, mentioning that her protagonists “changed before my eyes with every turn of the lens, and I wanted to show this transformation”—an ambitious notion, shaking a reader’s solid ground.
But for Matalon and The Sound of Our Steps, it makes sense. “We do not possess just one story about ourselves and our families during our lifetime,” she says. “There are many stories, sometimes contradictory ones.” These stories, she believes, are the substance of memory and experience. The novel avoids, as Matalon puts it, “nostalgic summary. I did not want to freeze my protagonists in anecdotes, to offer a well-ironed story. I struggled with this model of the thoroughly packed story in which everything is finalized. I hope that when my reader finishes the book, the feeling will be that this world keeps evolving and these figures keep developing inside us. It is a book about life, not about death and deadness.”
At this point, it probably won’t surprise you that Matalon—born in Israel, the daughter of Israeli-Egyptian immigrants, currently living in Tel Aviv—has drawn on her own experience and memory for this book. As a journalist and author of two other novels, Matalon has often explored issues of Israel and its history; dealing with topics including the Intifada and the diaspora of Israeli-Egyptians, she has been a vital social chronicler. Here, though, she looks inward, creating a world that sometimes seems completely isolated from history.
But even if her protagonists exist on what Matalon calls the “Israeli margins,” that doesn’t mean The Sound of Our Steps is any less political than her other works. “These margins are not just a place of victimization or oppression,” she says. “They also offer freedom, and present alternative values to the mainstream values, challenging and impregnating them.…But I am not interested mainly in the victim aspect; the protagonists of my book are not erased by cultural oppression, they are individuals who keep inventing themselves and discovering their liberty, even when they are at their lowest points. This capacity to invent oneself even when oppressed is crucial in my eyes.”
Finally, The Sound of Our Steps breaks national barriers because it’s about something universal, something every reader understands. “When the book appeared in Israel, many readers found themselves in it, even though their actual origins and their mainstream milieu were utterly different. I think this is because the book asks fundamental questions: what is a home? Can a home be built? How can one create a home within a society, within a country?” So, for Matalon, this book is her “literary home”—a place where she can live with her characters and her story—and if it seems unusual, it is because she has tried to build it “accurately,” rather than “rely on the conventions of building a novel.”
And I understand what she means: after all, what’s linear about memory? If you want to capture the truth about your past, you need to be open to the ways it will lead you, Proust-like, into strange territories. “I must look constantly outward—into the world—and inward—into my figures,” Matalon says. “Only this two-way movement maintains for me the significance of writing and the joy of writing.”
Benjamin Rybeck is marketing director at Brazos Bookstore in Houston. His work also appears in Electric Literature, Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, The Seattle Review, and elsewhere, and has received honorable mention in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and The Pushcart Prize Anthology.