With the launch of her new book this week, Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen tells Deborah Cicurel about her major passion for storytelling
One Night, Markovitch is the kind of novel aspiring writers everywhere wish they’d penned.
Funny yet simultaneously heartbreaking, it centres around two men, Zeev Feinberg and Yaacov Markovitch, who travel to Germany as part of a group who will marry Jewish women, selected randomly by the authorities, to allow them to escape war-torn Europe and enter Palestine legally – only to be divorced straight after.
Except Yaacov won’t divorce his beautiful wife, Bella, leading the rest of the plot to unfurl deliciously.
It’s the sort of book you’ll be reading with a torch at 4am and still be clutching on the Tube the next day. It is a remarkable debut by Israeli author Gundar-Goshen, a prize-winning author at the tender age of 32.
A trained psychologist, civil rights activist and ex-news editor on a leading Israel newspaper, she is accomplished, articulate and an exceptionally talented writer.
One Night, Markovitch takes place in so many locations – the freezing landscape of Europe, the chaos of Israel, the tempest of the ocean – that my first question when I meet Gundar-Goshen is to ask what initially inspired it.
“I owe my first novel to the boring ‘meeting the parents’ gathering,” she jokes. “The first time I visited the home of my boyfriend, I saw a strange house behind the fence, but there was something sad coming out of it. I was curious. I said ‘Who lives here?’ “My boyfriend said: “She is the most beautiful, miserable woman in the whole village.”
That was the first time I heard about this heroic fake marriage operation. What happened was that during the Second World War, a group of men came to Europe to marry Jewish women and sneak them out. This man refused to let his wife go. I was fascinated by this woman’s story.”
Having read her book, I can understand Gundar-Goshen’s fascination with the anti-hero of her story, Yaacov, who refuses to divorce Bella, hoping that one day she will love him back. “A man risks his life to enter Nazi Europe – everyone tries to get out and he goes in! – and then he turns into the bad guy. He’s so madly in love that he becomes totally blind.”
I ask if part of her motivation for writing the novel was to address the ongoing issue of women being unable to obtain a get. “A writer isn’t a politician,” she says. “I didn’t write an essay about issues in Israel today. Of course, as a woman, I’m furious about it, but there’s a difference between a petition and a novel. In a petition, the man is a bad guy; in a novel, it’s a bit more complicated than that.”
I tell her that when I read the novel, I found it hard to view Yaacov consistently as ‘the bad guy’ – that I actually felt sorry for him. “I’m pleased you said that,’ Gundar-Goshen says. “I didn’t want people to think he was a villain. I wanted him to be a real person.”
It is the intimately personal details with which the author imbues her characters that makes them so lifelike. I ask her if it’s true that all good characters are 50 percent the writer and 50 percent someone the writer knows. She laughs at that and says: “It’s like Frankenstein. You take one organ out of everyone you know, the moustache from one man, the smell from another… you put it all together and create a new something.”
The novel spans decades, generations, but it begins with the war and the birth of Israel. “I was always drawn to that period because this is where legends begin, where myths were born,” Gundar-Goshen says, in the poetic way only a writer can. “Israel was born out of a womb of death and fire. I was always fascinated by it.”
It is a very Jewish tale – the experiences, the gossiping, the relationships. She says: “Some of the stories in Markovitch were based on my own family’s experience. “When you’re a kid and you listen to the stories, your family sound like heroes, and when you grow up you realise you don’t agree with everything they did. You realise that some people can be both heroes and villains.”
As her success begins to take hold, she will no doubt be flying all over the world for launches and parties and events. I ask how she feels about the various translations of her book, given that her voice is so strong and distinctive. Her reply is direct. “I didn’t read the English translation because I knew it would be too hard,” she says.
It took her two years to write her debut book. She recalls: “I kept asking myself who is this man? Why would he do such a thing? From that came the character, a man who nobody bothers to look at. That’s the man who would hold somebody by force. That was my door into the story.” As a psychologist, her journey to understanding Yaacov’s motivations is one of trying to avoid the temptation to label someone ‘the bad guy’. “You always search for a door,” she says.
“Even if what you’re looking at looks like a huge wall of bricks, you always search for a door, and if you search long enough you will always find a way in.”
The film rights to her book have already been bought, and she is halfway through writing the screenplay, which she calls very tricky. “You have to be able to let go of what you love in order to write something new,”she explains.
When I ask why it’s tough to adapt her book, she laughs. “It’s like having to fall in love with someone all over again,” she says. As a reader, I can’t wait to fall in love with One Night, Markovitch all over again.
• One Night, Markovitch is published by Pushkin Press and is out now, priced £10