In her new book, Waking Lions, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen asks if we can ever really know ourselves. She speaks to Alex Galbinski
What would you do if you knocked someone over with your car and knew they were going to die? Would you call an ambulance, or would you just leave?
This is the premise of Waking Lions, a gripping novel by Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, who poses the question of whether we really ever know ourselves – or others.
Her lead character, Eitan Green, is by all accounts a good man. He is a doctor with a conscience, happily married to police officer Liat, with whom he has two children.
One dark night after a gruelling 19-hour shift, instead of going home, Eitan decides to take his car for a spin. When he runs over an Eritrean migrant, he is horrified – but flees.
The next day, the Eritrean man’s beautiful widow knocks on his door to hand back his wallet and there begins a tale of blackmail, passion and betrayal.
Gundar-Goshen, 34, who is a practising psychologist, forces the reader to confront many uncomfortable truths and explores the lies people – including couples who are deeply in love – tell each other and themselves.
“The question of whether we really know ourselves leads the novel. Tomorrow, when I rush home to put my baby to sleep, if I hit someone, can I be 100 percent sure that I would act differently to my protagonist?” she asks. “I really want to say yes, but I don’t think we can know.”
The book was inspired by an incident when Gundar-Goshen was staying in a hostel in India after her military service. She got talking to an Israeli who confided in her that he had badly wounded an Indian man while riding his motorbike a few days earlier; he had panicked and left.
“He was afraid to go to jail, he was afraid of what the locals might do to him and he just left the man lying there,” she recalls.
“And I immediately thought that if it had been me he’d hit, he’d probably have stopped; if he hit an Israeli girl who looks like him, who speaks the same language, with a name he is familiar with, that he would have stayed there and given help. I was haunted by this story for years. I wondered what happened the day after.”
Scratch the surface of our liberal persona, though, and there are many prejudices waiting to jump out, says Gundar-Goshen. “We like to think we are liberal, that we vote for the good guys, that we teach our kids humanistic rules, but no-one knows who we are until there is an existential moment that defines you much more than the years of stories you tell yourself.”
But she did not want to write a book about a white man feeling guilty – she wanted another perspective.
“I thought of this female character – the refugee’s widow – who no-one noticed, but she sees something that empowers her and I thought it could be big enough for a novel.”
Waking Lions is also a timely reminder about the personal tragedies and sacrifices made by people in search of a better life.
“It is outrageous to think that we are the people who walked the whole Sinai desert just to reach the Promised Land and now you have other people who are walking exactly the same desert to reach this Promised Land and we’re putting them into camps… it just makes you want to cry,” says Gundar-Goshen, who has worked for an Israeli civil rights movement.
“Of course the situation is difficult, and there is a limit to how many refugees Israel can accept over a period of time, but I think if our ancestors could see what we’re doing to these people, they would be ashamed.”
It’s a writer’s role to look at the things others try to ignore, says Gundar-Goshen, who also worked as a news editor for Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot.
“In literature, what you try to do is re-teach yourself to see those things that, as a child, were so clear to you, but now you are blind to.”
Although Eitan thinks of himself as a moral man, he sees the death of the Eritrean – he only finds out the migrant’s name quite late on, a deliberate distancing tactic – only through the prism of how it affects him.
“The refugee’s death is this tragedy that happened to Eitan and he isn’t interested in his name, because he’s so concerned with how he, the defender of the world, has survived it,” explains Gundar-Goshen. “And when he realises it wasn’t just an Eritrean – it was a man, who had a name and a face – it’s a very important moment.”
In between working on the screenplay of a Hebrew film version of Waking Lions, Gundar-Goshen is working on the English screenplay of her award-winning debut novel, One Night, Markovitch, a love story set in the fledgling Jewish state – which will be produced by Leslee Udwin of East Is East fame.
The Tel Aviv-based author is also busy working on her third book, but admits that, with a young daughter, things take longer now.
“My heart has been taken hostage by a toddler so it’s quite hard to write,” she laughs. “It’s very different from Waking Lions – the tone and the music is different, but it’s always about people.”
• Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is published by Pushkin Press, priced £12.99. It is available now