Look for Me
Random House of Canada Ltd
by Gwen Nowak
Review published in Books in Canada, March 2005.
Edeet Ravel loves to write. Maybe lives to write. Ravel claims that even though she has been writing since she was 12 she has never experienced writers’ block. Now 59, she has, not surprisingly, produced a large opus, including novels, prose poems, a comic cartoon book, and children’s stories. More surprisingly, she has rarely submitted her work to a publisher, even though she received early affirmation of her talent, starting at age 16 with best short story in Canada by a high school student, best piece [a prose poem] by a university graduate in Canada, and the Norma Epstein National Fiction Award for Lovers: A Midrash .
But Ravel did decide to seek a publisher for Ten Thousand Lovers, the first novel of her proposed Tel Aviv Trilogy. So relaxed, or confident, was Ravel that she submitted the first portion of the manuscript without a covering letter. In virtually no time she received a request for the full manuscript, followed quite promptly by an offer to publish. A writer’s dream.
Fast forward the dream to the publishing of Ten Thousand Lovers in 2003 which was followed by nominations for a host of awards: the Governor General’s Award, the Koret Jewish Book Award, the Quebec Writers Federation Award, and Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award - as well as ‘best book’ notices by Quill and Quire, Globe and Mail, and Hadassah WZO. What an auspicious launch for a Ravel’s Tel Aviv Trilogy. Readers and critics would eagerly anticipate book two.
They didn’t have long to wait. Look for Me promptly appeared in 2004. It has been awarded the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. With nary a break in pace book three of the trilogy, Wall of Light, is slated for publication in summer 2005. In fact, a description of and excerpt from WOL is already posted on Ravel’s web site. As Ravel said, ‘Writer’s block? Never been there.’
In Look for Me Ravel reprises key elements of Ten Thousand Lovers. Once again she explores the theme of ‘love in an impossible world.’ The ‘impossible world’ is Israel, ‘impossible’ because of the chronic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. In both novels Ravel parses the countless ways that the conflict bedevils the relationships of Israeli citizens. A pro-Palestinian peace activist herself, Ravel imbues her male and female protagonists with the same perspective and ideals. But she does not project a one-sided point of view. The literary awards already received attest to the fact that Ravel’s trilogy does not degrade to one-sided pot boiler propaganda.
The mise-en-scène of Ten Thousand Lovers and Look for Me is the intersection between myth and the modern world. Ravel sets a pattern for the trilogy’s male and female protagonists with TTL’s Ami and Lily. Their names are coded pointers to the ‘big picture’ being painted by Ravel: Ami means ‘my nation’ and Lily is borrowed from the biblical Song of Songs. Ami and Lily are unique individuals with believable biographies in real time even though their story echoes the biblical love story, a story which has its own antecedent in the ancient myth of Adam and Eve. Ami and Lily shelter one another at home in their garden paradise (Ami does the gardening) but they have to earn their living in the highly conflicted world beyond the garden gate. In words taken from the Song of Songs, “ten thousand lovers”, Ravel’s title suggests that her narrative, her trilogy, is ultimately about everyman and everywoman. The big picture indeed.
Look for Me tells the story of Dana and Daniel who meet, fall in love, and discover that they are so alike that they even dream the same dreams. As with Ami and Lily, their lovemaking reprises the full body erotic joy of the Song of Songs. Realizing that they are “almost one person” they give each other a new name, significantly the same name, Daneli. Their living room reminds of the primal garden paradise: they paint one wall black, place a mirror at its centre and plant around it green foliage with heart-shaped leaves. Ultimately, but not surprisingly, Daneli as mythic androgyne is bedevilled by real time tragic flaws and local politics. As in Ten Thousand Lovers the interplay between ancient mythic time and current events is the underlying tension of the narrative.
In Look for Me Dana is the narrator. Like the woman of Song of Songs Dana takes the initiative in her relationship with her lover, from her first sighting of Daniel as musician performing at her cousin’s wedding feast and later when she initiates their first sexual encounter. But Ravel adds another biblical nuance, moving forward from Song of Songs to the Book of Daniel. Like the prophet Daniel Dana has visions in the night, dreams which she faithfully records in a journal covered with a copy of Raphael’s Madonna and the Fish. In an opening coda Ravel describes a dream which shows Dana caught between her real time pro-Palestinian activism and her desperate need to “introduce waking-life logic into the dream.” As the story unfolds this reader couldn’t help but think of James Joyce’s famous phrase: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to wake up.” It is in the un-graced nightmare world of exile from the garden that mistaken identities [TTL] and misbegotten dreams [LFM] lead to the tragic separation of the lovers. And it is also the world where the sons of Abraham take deadly aim at each other making Israel a house divided.
In both novels, it is the woman’s lover who disappears. The reader knows from the outset that he has gone. The mystery, and the narrative purpose, is to uncover the why of the lover’s absence. In Look for Me Dana searches for Daniel for eleven years. Her torment of separation resonates with, even replicates, the torment of the woman of Song of Songs who searches every highway and byway for her beloved. But in the real world of modern Israel there are hards facts on the ground to be dealt with, namely the worsening situation between Israelis and Palestinians. Tellingly, Dana’s personal unhappiness does not interfere with her passion for justice. Throughout the years of searching for Daniel she continues her dogged prophetic witness by photographing the humiliation of the Palestinians at Israeli checkpoints. Meanwhile she earns her living by writing pulp fiction, romances crafted according to the publisher’s formula for romantic intrigue, sexual encounter and, of course a happy ending with a wedding. Dana calls her novels ‘junk romances’; after she sends the finished manuscript to a publisher whom she never meets, she doesn’t bother to find out their titles or to look for them in print herself.
In her ‘real life’ fictions Ravel does not use formula even though she intentionally borrows and modifies patterns from the biblical text. (Her first published fiction, Lovers A Midrash, was an experiment in this genre.) Ravel’s weddings take place at the beginning of the narrative, the sexual encounters are somehow both suggestive and explicit at the same time, and the endings are laced with the complexities and ambiguities of the world as it is. If the ending of Look for Me seems altogether too coy, even contrived, about a certain paternity issue it does help to remember that truth is often stranger than fiction. Ravel has earned her reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief.”
It seems natural to foresee hosts of future students in the humanities department of universities in Canada, Israel and beyond delighting in the assigned task of searching for and critically evaluating the literary and biblical clues woven into Ravel’s fiction. Example: an undergraduate student is required to write an essay on the relevance of Ravel’s choice of epigraph for Ten Thousand Lovers, a question taken from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “What country, friends, is this?” Example: A postgraduate student is inspired to write a thesis exploring the relationship between that opening question and the epigraph for Look for Me taken from King Lear: “And take upon ’s the mystery of things, As if we were God’s spies.”
Gwen Nowak's book Miriam of Nazareth: Who can find her? is about
the historical Jewish Miriam, mother of Jesus. Gwen happily notes that
Ravel identifies the Virgin Mary as the Hebrew St. Miriam, perhaps
preparing the way for Miriam to be recognized by her Jewish sisters.
[Ten Thousand Lovers, 329].