Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

In a legendary past, which maybe only ever existed within liberal fantasies, writers from cultures severed by conflict would come together to seek common ground. If they could never make peace by themselves, they might show what it would look like. No longer – at least, not in the Middle East.

Now, literature serves to stiffen the backbone of one cause or the other. This week's rival festivals prove the point. In Jerusalem, Ramallah, Jenin and Bethlehem, the first Palestine Festival of Literature runs until Sunday. Visitors such as David Hare, Roddy Doyle, William Dalrymple and Andrew O'Hagan will join leading Arab authors – including Ahdaf Soueif and Mourid Barghouti – for events "in solidarity with the Palestinian people".

Painfully close by, the Jerusalem International Writers Festival starts on Sunday as Israel marks its 60 years of independence. It boasts American stars (Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss), European icons (Ismail Kadare, Andrei Makine) and a constellation of Israeli voices, from Amos Oz to Etgar Keret. Due to attend from South Africa, Nadine Gordimer has come under pressure to withdraw. She still seems likely to turn up, and has promised to meet Palestinian groups. Otherwise, dialogue seems absent from everyone's agenda.

Forget about building bridges, forging links, and all those other cute engineering metaphors. When it comes to Israel-Palestine, that seems as moribund as the peace process. Especially since the renewed Lebanon war of 2006, divisions have deepened and doveish literati on either side now attract more suspicion than sympathy from counterparts. If you believe justice lies in your camp, then solidarity trumps empathy every time. Why should the finest writers think or act differently?

Because, just occasionally, they can, and do. With exquisite timing, Ibis Editions of Jerusalem has re-issued a small, sad but exhilarating masterwork. Ibis (a genuine beacon of hope) publishes an ecumenical list of elegant books from "Levantine" authors, whatever their background. They have surpassed themselves with a terrific translation (by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck) of S Yizhar's classic novella from 1949, Khirbet Khizeh.

Taking one operation against a single village as its relentless focus, Khirbet Khizeh portrays the mass expulsion of Palestinians during Israel's bloody birth in 1948. And it does so from an Israeli soldier's point-of-view. "We came, we shot, we burned; we blew up, expelled, drove out, and sent into exile," reflects the aghast narrator at the close of the assault. Yizhar – a long-time Labour member of the Knesset – evokes the serenity of the spot and the panic of its people with a heartbreaking alternation of lyricism, savagery and pathos. "What in God's name were we doing in this place!"

As an insider's account of a brave cause upheld by ordinary guys that swiftly, almost unwittingly, drops into the darkness of oppression, only the strongest fiction from Vietnam comes close. None of that, I think, can match it for magnified pity and terror, and a true prophetic voice. As a Palestinian lad shares the humiliation of his family, "we could also see how something was happening in the heart of the boy" that "when he grew up, could only become a viper inside him". Yizhar saw the nascent viper in 1949; precious few others could.

Yizhar (a native sabra, born in Ottoman Palestine in 1916) remained a left-wing Zionist, and a pioneering pillar of modern Hebrew letters. Great writing may go further into the other's territory than its author ever could. Khirbet Khizeh endures to bear a bitter witness that transcends allegiance or affinity. British readers should rush to share its still-shocking wisdom: