BOOK REVIEW / When a silent minority finds a voice . . .: Sleeping on a wire - by David Grossman, trs Haim Watzman: Cape pounds 17.99

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SOME years ago Edward Said visited the ICA to talk about his book After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives. During the course of the discussion he referred, en passant, to a wealthy relative who, wearied by the laments of beggars and other tiresome importunates, had printed the following card, to use in lieu of a hand-out: 'Your story is very moving. Thank you very much. But I cannot contribute.'

This was also, until recently, the attitude towards the Palestinian minority of many Israelis. More accurately, perhaps, I should say Jewish Israelis, which may sound like a tautology but isn't: the Arabs who remained in 1948 are (like it or not) also Israelis. Sleeping On A Wire is David Grossman's contribution to their cause.

Grossman's most famous fictional creation is Momik, in See Under: Love, a boy so fascinated by the forbidden Facts of Death that he actually tries to raise the 'Nazi Beast'. Young Momik, with his obsessive need to literalise, is a role-model for Grossman's own reportage. The other model is Amos Oz's In The Land Of Israel, which recorded the voices of zealous Jewish settlers in the occupied territories (since heard from ad nauseam). With The Yellow Wind (in which the occupied rather than their occupiers speak), and now with this companion volume, Grossman has continued the honourable tradition of giving voice to the vocally disenfranchised.

This is not to say that the book is an act of charity, or contrition. It also aspires to self-improvement: Grossman travels in the hope that what he learns will change him, and also change his co-religionists and fellow-citizens. We hear from teachers, poets,

professors of philosophy, Islamic militants, feminists - and from a former resident of Ikrit, a place which provides a metaphor for the fate of them all. In 1948, the Palestinian inhabitants of this village agreed to be evacuated on the understanding that they would be permitted to return when the fighting was over. Time passed, and they remained excluded. Finally, in 1951, they went to the High Court, which found in their favour. Alas, it was a pyrrhic victory, for the army responded by dynamiting their village. Grossman realises that until some accommodation is found for the people of Ikrit and their descendants - and, by extension, all the other Palestinians within Israel's borders - peace treaties with the enemies without will be woefully inadequate.

Indeed, Grossman is astonished that the Palestinians are so patient. Hence his title. 'Every acrobat knows the secret of walking a tightrope over an abyss,' he writes. 'The Arabs in Israel have learned something even more difficult - to stand still on the wire. To abstain, for years, from any hasty movement. To live a provisional life that eternally suspends and dulls the will.' With this dramatic image Grossman sums up the existential dilemma of the local Arabs.

At such points we recognise that our guide is essentially an artist, rather than a demographer or an economist. Closer inspection will surely reveal that the people huddled on the wire are not a completely homogeneous group; that there are, in fact, all sorts of potentially catastrophic divisions occasioned by class, religion and sex. It is artistry that makes the microcosmic tragedies so painful, and artistry that enables the reader to identify with Grossman as he relaxes his defences and begins to see the necessity of redefining his Israeliness to include those 'whose life is a kind of alternate possibility to yours'.

The climax comes when Grossman reheats an old debate between A B Yehoshua (the Jewish author of Mr Mani) and Anton Shammas (the Palestinian author of Arabesques, a poignant novel about the 'loneliness of the Palestinian Arab Israeli'). Yehoshua believes that a Jew can find true fulfilment only in Israel, and suggests that Shammas, should he wish to find similar fulfilment, move a few kilometers to the east. (There is a tacit assumption throughout the book that a Palestinian state is an inevitability.) Shammas, naturally, feels excluded, and proposes instead the separation of synagogue and state.

In the end, Grossman tries, metaphorically, to embrace them both. Having been shocked by the universal fear of 'transfer' (expulsion) felt by Arabs, he proffers a radically different remedy, 'internalisation'. In short, the one must 'try to formulate a common identity' with the other, who is 'part of the family of his enemies'. Since Grossman made his peregrination in the wake of the Gulf War, a left- wing government has come to power in Israel. It is to be hoped that Mr Rabin and his fellow ministers will take this book's prescription to heart.