A Fatal Hit-And-Run Leads To A Collision Of Cultures In 'Waking Lions'

Mar 1, 2017
Originally published on March 1, 2017 4:07 pm

Worlds collide in Waking Lions, a new novel by Israeli writer Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. Like Tom Wolfe, who used the device of a hit-and-run accident in The Bonfire of the Vanities as a means to violently "introduce" New Yorkers of different races and classes to each other, Gundar-Goshen also begins her story with a car ride gone haywire.

One night, as neurosurgeon Dr. Eitan Green is driving home from his long hospital shift near the Israeli city of Omer, he decides to de-stress by detouring out to the moonlit desert. There, he cranks up some Janis Joplin and begins racing his SUV on the empty white gravel road.

Well, not quite empty. Because as Eitan glances at the enormous moon in his rear-view mirror, his SUV hits a man who appears out of nowhere on the road. The man looks to be African, a migrant, and, though he's still breathing, his skull is split open. The African man's life can't be saved, but Eitan's life, the one he's built with his wife and two young sons, can be. After a few minutes of tortured soul searching, the good doctor gets back in his SUV and drives home.

That opening failure of conscience reverberates throughout Waking Lions, warping Eitan's marriage and career and bringing him into unforeseen intimate contact with crowds of "others". Like many a noir patsy, Eitan comes to realize that in trying to dodge disaster, he's stepped backwards into a bottomless pit.

The next morning, after his wife has taken their young sons off to school, Eitan hears a knock at the door. A tall Eritrean woman stands outside, holding Eitan's wallet. Turns out, he dropped it at the scene of the crime.

The woman's name is Sirkit and she's the widow of the man Eitan hit and killed. In return for her silence, she demands that Eitan spend every night for the foreseeable future at a deserted garage outside the city. There, on a rusty metal table, with medicine he's ordered to steal from his own hospital, Eitan must treat an unending stream of African migrants, most of whom have walked over a thousand miles from Eritrea through Egypt and the Sinai into Israel.

As a novel, Waking Lions itself is the product of a collision of cultures and genres. Translated from the Hebrew, it's a psychological suspense tale mashed with a social novel about the refugee crisis.

Overall, it's vividly imagined, clever, and morally ambiguous, although, occasionally, Gundar-Goshen's plot seems bit contrived. (Eitan's wife, for instance, happens to be the Israeli police detective investigating the hit-and-run accident.)

Those lapses, however, mean little in comparison to how deftly Gundar-Goshen complicates her characters here. Sirkit, who at first appears to be a fierce humanitarian, turns out to be charging her fellow refugees for the illicit medical service she's arranged. And, Eitan, who used to pride himself on his ethics and selflessness as a doctor, finds that, as his autonomy is taken away from him and his exhaustion mounts, his empathy for his fellow human beings withers. Here's a description of the nightly scene at the garage:

They came en masse. The rumor about secret, unrecorded medical treatment spread faster than any viral infection. They came from the deserts and wadis, the restaurants ... and the central bus station where they worked as cleaners. ...

Since [Eitan] had been coerced into helping his patients, he hated them as least as much as he hated himself. Was repulsed by the stench. The bodily fluids. ...

Without language, without the ability to exchange a single sentence the way people do ... without words, only flesh remained. Stinking. Rotting. With ulcers, excretions, inflammations, scars. Perhaps this was how a veterinarian felt.

Waking Lions contains lots of raw passages like that one. It's a smart and disturbing exploration of the high price of walking away, whether it be from a car accident or from one's own politically unstable homeland.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of "Waking Lions" by Israeli novelist and screenwriter Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. "Waking Lions" is her first book to be translated from Hebrew into English and is also being adapted for television.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Worlds collide in "Waking Lions," a new novel by Israeli writer Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. Like Tom Wolfe, who used the device of a hit-and-run accident in the "Bonfire Of The Vanities" as a means to violently introduce New Yorkers of different races and classes to each other, Gundar-Goshen also begins her story with a car ride gone haywire.

One night, as neurosurgeon Dr. Eitan Green is driving home from his long hospital shift near the Israeli city of Omer, he decides to de-stress by detouring out to the moonlit desert. There, he cranks up some Janis Joplin and begins racing his SUV on the empty, white gravel road. Well, not quite empty because as Eitan glances at the enormous moon in his rearview mirror, his SUV hits a man who appears out of nowhere on the road. The man looks to be African, a migrant. And though he's still breathing, his skull is split open. The African man's life can't be saved, but Eitan's life, the one he's built with his wife and two young sons, can be. After a few minutes of tortured soul-searching, the good doctor gets back in his SUV and drives home.

That opening failure of conscience reverberates throughout "Waking Lions," warping Eitan's marriage and career and bringing him into unforeseen intimate contact with crowds of others. Like many a noir patsy, Eitan comes to realize that in trying to dodge disaster, he stepped backwards into a bottomless pit. The next morning, after his wife has taken their young sons off to school, Eitan hears a knock at the door. A tall, Eritrean woman stands outside holding Eitan's wallet. Turns out, he dropped it at the scene of the crime.

The woman's name is Sirkit, and she is the widow of the man Eitan hit and killed. In return for her silence, she demands that Eitan spend every night for the foreseeable future at a deserted garage outside the city. There, on a rusty metal table with medicine he's ordered to steal from his own hospital. Eitan must treat and unending stream of African migrants, most of whom have walked over a thousand miles from Eritrea through Egypt and the Sinai into Israel.

As a novel, "Waking Lions" itself is the product of a collision of cultures and genres. Translated from the Hebrew, it's a psychological suspense tale mashed with a social novel about the refugee crisis. Overall, it's vividly imagined, clever and morally ambiguous, although occasionally Gundar-Goshen's plot seems a bit contrived. Eitan's wife, for instance, happens to be the Israeli police detective investigating the hit-and-run accident.

Those lapses, however, mean little in comparison to how deftly Gundar-Goshen complicates her characters here. Sirkit, who at first appears to be a fierce humanitarian, turns out to be charging her fellow refugees for the illicit medical service she's arranged. And Eitan, who used to pride himself on his ethics and selflessness as a doctor, finds that, as his autonomy is taken away from him and his exhaustion mounts, his empathy for his fellow human beings withers.

Here's a description of the nightly scene at the garage. (Reading) They came en masse. The rumor about secret, unrecorded medical treatment spread faster than any viral infection. They came from the deserts and wadis, the restaurants and the central bus station where they worked as cleaners. Since Eitan had been coerced into helping his patients, he hated them at least as much as he hated himself - was repulsed by the stench, the bodily fluids. Without language, without the ability to exchange a single sentence the way people do - without words, only flesh remained - stinking, rotting, with ulcers, excretions, inflammations, scars. Perhaps this was how a veterinarian felt.

"Waking Lions" contains lots of raw passages like that one. It's a smart and disturbing exploration of the high price of walking away, whether it be from a car accident or from one's own politically unstable homeland.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan reviewed "Waking Lions" by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. We'd like to congratulate Maureen on being named the Nicky and Jamie Grant (ph) distinguished professor of the practice in literary criticism at Georgetown University.

(SOUNDBITE OF RENAUD GARCIA-FONS' "BERIMBASS")

GROSS: Tomorrow, my guest will be Major Mary Jennings Hegar, a medevac pilot who proved a woman can be brave and effective in combat. After receiving a Purple Heart and a Distinguished Flying Cross with valor device, she became the plaintiff in an ACLU suit against the Defense Department, arguing that excluding women from combat was unconstitutional. Now she has a new memoir called "Shoot Like A Girl" - and a 3-week-old baby. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF RENAUD GARCIA-FONS' "BERIMBASS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.