Lies, First Person by Gail Hareven


Ma Raboo / Ma Raboo

What is the true definition of the word normal? Merriam-Webster defines it as meaning “mentally and physically healthy” but who among us is to serve as the baseline for measuring this statistic? At some point, without fail, everyone becomes inexplicably changed, damaged, and/or has their worldview altered significantly by events that transpire in their lives. What’s acceptable to one person may be considered highly objectionable to another. What one person believes to be true may be thought of as pure fantasy by someone else. Are we all mentally ill then? Certainly we’ don’t all fall within the acceptable range of being normal. Whatever that is. Whatever that word is supposed to mean.

Mental illness, or an absence of normality if you will, plays a heavy role in this meticulously plotted and perfectly paced tale of family dysfunction. In fact, from very first page Hareven’s protagonist Elinor makes no attempts to disguise from us that she is the very epitome of an unreliable narrator. Just how damaged she’s become however, how traumatized she’s been by events that occurred in her past, and just how far she’s willing to go to even the score in this regard, won’t become crystal clear until much, much later.

For the most part it seems that she’s managed to move on from the trauma she endured as a child. She’s a happily married writer. She’s the mother of two grown children who are now both studying abroad. She sees herself as living a life of contentment in the Garden of Eden. This metaphor isn’t lost on the attentive reader as the novel quickly progresses into much darker territory, for it was Eve who provided Adam with the forbidden fruit to eat. It is woman who bares the burden for the fall of man. She was first sinner.

Hitler_First_PersonThe past comes calling when Elinor’s estranged uncle reaches out to her through her husband via email seeking reconciliation. A famous writer turned professor, Aaron Gotthilf once wrote a fictional autobiography titled Hitler, First Person in an attempt to place himself in the dictator’s shoes, to humanize him, to make him appear a more sympathetic character to the reader. Poor little Hitler, right? Not surprisingly, the result of his painstaking efforts to make the Führer more relatable were widely criticized and condemned. In response to the work, one woman even attempted to throw acid in Gotthilf’s face during a public appearance.

Reality as it is, is never concentrated into one symbolic picture, and focusing the eye on a single picture is nothing but a literary device; an impudent sleight of hand, just like directing our attention to a bit of dust so we won’t notice the other dirt.

It’s not shame over the existence of this book, or the black eye that’s been placed on her family name because of it that has Elinor up in arms. It’s the fact that in researching the novel Gotthilf needed to have an authentic experience with darkness, he needed to come face to face with pure evil. As a result, while staying in her family’s hotel to write the novel, he repeatedly raped, and ultimately impregnated her older sister Elisheva. At first the girl’s parents don’t believe her claims, but after Elinor goes to great lengths to prove that Gotthilf paid for Elisheva to have an abortion, they have no choice but to accept the truth. As a result it shatters their already fragile family dynamic and ulitmately sends the girls themselves spiraling down two very different paths.

It’s not just rape that occurs though, as if that heinous act committed against a child isn’t enough. No, Gotthilf was obsessed with the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, and as a result he does everything he can think of to break the young Elisheva both physically and mentally. He continually humiliates her, he uses her as a piece of living furniture, and he performs numerous vile and heinous acts against her with the full knowledge that she has multiple learning disabilities, or as Elinor describes it rather blunty, is retarded.

Who is to blame then for their subsequent years of misery if not Gotthilf? And now that he’s suddenly reappeared what does he want and what is Elinor willing to do about it?

Hareven’s novel, and Bilu’s stunningly fierce translation of it, carefully attempts to untangle the lies we tell ourselves, and each other, in order to rationalize and justify the larger supposed truths we cling to. It tackles weighty topics such as religion, retribution, morality, and human nature head on and never attempts to sugar coat or smooth over the dark territory it so boldly explores. Its ending may leave the more casual reader lost, wandering alone in an expansive wadi, scratching their head wondering what the big deal is supposed to be, but for those who piece it together, for those who get it, the message behind what’s actually occurring over the course of this astonishing piece of fiction is not one that is easily shakable.

Lies, First Person by Gail Hareven / Translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu ★★★★★
Lies, First Person
by Gail Hareven
Translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu

Open Letter Books
(2008) 2015
370 Pages
ISBN 9781940953038

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.