Nowhere Outside of History
Picnic Grounds: A Novel in Fragments
(City Lights Books, 2003)
On the night of April 9th, 1948, the infamous Jewish paramilitary groups Irgun and the Stern Gang surrounded the tiny Arab village of Deir Yasin, five kilometers to the west of Jerusalem. After issuing a brief warning to evacuate, the paramilitaries—led by future Israeli president Menachem Begin—proceeded to sweep the village, massacring 254 of the village’s 700 inhabitants, mostly older men, women, and children. Those who survived either fled or were taken captive and paraded as war spoils through Jerusalem. Twenty-five years later, a former army colonel and eyewitness would make a public admission in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth: "The Irgun and LEHI men came out of hiding and began to ‘clean’ the houses. They shot whoever they saw, women and children included, [and] the commanders did not try to stop the massacre."
Now an Israeli settlement, Deir Yasin has become one of the most potent symbols of what Palestinians call Al-Nakba—"The Catastrophe"—the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their lands and the foundation of the state of Israel. It is here, at Deir Yasin, that Israeli author Oz Shelach begins his debut novel, Picnic Grounds: A Novel in Fragments. In the first "fragment" of the novel, a history professor has taken his family to the site for a picnic outing. Told in Shelach’s understated, almost journalistic prose, the scene is utterly banal. Banal, that is, until one understands that the real story is in what has been left out, the words not said, the names no longer mentioned: "The professor did not talk of the village, origin of the stones. He did not talk of the village school, now a psychiatric hospital, on the other side of the hill. He imagined that he and his family were having a picnic, unrelated to the village, enjoying its grounds outside of history."
A collection of vignettes or snapshots more than a true narrative, Shelach’s book is also a picture of a society desperately trying to live outside of history, to disastrous effect. Shelach’s Israel is a society overloaded with small ironies and absurdities, with blind spots so large they threaten to blot out the entire view. One section, laconically titled "Participation," relates the following story:
In Tel-Aviv, a random group of psychology students, who are required to participate in three or four so-called experiments every semester, were asked to imagine the whole city bare, to strip it down in their mind’s eye to what it was, or could be. All the students envisioned a big emptiness. They saw streets and buildings, or wide stretches of sand and low bush and a few streams flowing into the sea, some saw ruins. Not one participant in the experiment mentioned humans.
The "good guide" to Jerusalem, another section deadpans, "doesn’t touch on what we all know."
Everything, in Picnic Grounds, carries a double valence. Even the most innocent-seeming objects—a forest spring, the octagonal classrooms of Hebrew University—take on a vaguely sinister symbolic weight. News of bombings back home breaks through exotic vacations to India and Spain. The relentless modernness of Israel coexists uneasily with its mythologized ancient past; the banality of daily life is compromised by the awareness of the violence upon which it is built. From time to time a remnant of the land’s Palestinian heritage crops up through the Israeli overgrowth, which sprawls like the huge, ecosystem-damaging pine trees the government plants throughout the country. In one fragment, an army officer, responding to a forest fire caused by these overzealous pines, comments that "the trees had done their job, it was now property developers’ time."
Shelach documents a world in which violence is at once ubiquitous and unspoken, or spoken so often that it loses force and becomes almost ordinary, just one more part of the landscape. But the greatest—and the most unspoken— violence is not that which is suffered by the people that appear in Shelach’s novel. Rather, it is the violence that has been imposed in their name, and with their conscious or unconscious complicity.
Only rarely does Shelach’s writing approach anything like high rhetoric, as in the following passage, from the end of "Tea Outdoors"—
They drank carefully, in little sips, like ghosts that haunt the soil, which is soaked with blood, where vines stretch out over ruins and persist like the claims—big sweet green grapes, rich in seeds, tall fig trees—of the farmers we drove away.
— but these rare flashes of rage are directions for how the novel should be read: as a portrait of a people in denial of their own history, a people whose country was built on a foundation of murder and theft, and who know it, but cannot bring themselves to renounce their spoils. According to Menachem Begin, "The massacre [at Deir Yasin] was not only justified, but there would not have been a state of Israel without [it]." The characters of Picnic Grounds suffer from the knowledge that they owe their existence to past and present injustices, that even the words they use are suspect, and that the normalcy of their lives is only a fake normalcy at best.
At a recent reading in Brooklyn, Shelach—who now lives in New York—refused to become any sort of spokesman or political analyst, protesting that he had written a work of art and ambiguity, not commentary or taking sides. "Long orderly texts belong in the 19th-century shelves," declaims one character. "Today, there are only short stories." But for all its apparent modesty, Shelach’s slip of a novel is as bitter, sad, and angry a work as any of the great epics of war. Like its title, Picnic Grounds seems gentle, but what emerges is a tragic portrait of historical violence and its erasure in the collective memory