Translations of Youth

His latest novel to be translated into English, Someone to Run With, is a very decent place to start for anyone interested in contemporary Israel or Israeli fiction. In a Hebrew edition, it is listed in his bibliography under ‘Children’s books’. This makes some sense, even if the language in both Hebrew and English would stretch most children, but don’t be misled. The novel is to Harry Potter what The Bible is to Lord of the Rings – similar in size, diversity of characters and mass appeal, but slightly more, well, weighty. Nevertheless, it is a children’s book. An example of a non-children’s book by David Grossman is, say, See Under: Love, a virtuoso exploration of Israel and the Holocaust, an astonishing, exhilarating read, and most definitely not for children.

Someone to Run With is a love story told as an adventure story. At the centre of a diverse cast of unlikely – but not unbelievable – characters, are the teenagers Assaf and Tamar, separately overcoming difficulties in their own life by creating challenges on an altogether different scale. The scene is present-day Jerusalem, but nothing like the Holy City or centre of The Conflict. David takes us into the underbelly of Israeli life, through back alleys, cafes, dodgy hostels and druggies’ haunts.

The underbelly is exposed as being full of both beauty and ugliness. It is also found in surprising places – a best friend turns out to be an enemy, an ugly ex-heroin addict proves to have a heart of gold. All moral tales worthy for children to read, yes, but told in such a captivating way that the story never reads morally. In fact, I’m not convinced David is out to impart a moral tale along Victorian lines, just that he has a powerful view of what is and is not important in the world. Meanwhile, Assaf and Tamar move ever closer to discovering each other and love for the first time. If this sounds soppy, just remember the druggies’ haunts.

The writing itself is a joy to read. The translation is good, though sadly cannot reflect the full breadth of David’s mastery of Hebrew. His imagination constantly surprises. An awkward word in conversation is described as ‘fluttering like a living creature, a chick that had fallen from Rhino’s [a friend of Assaf] bosom, and someone had to pick it up.’

That David can convey a 16-year old’s imagination through the prism of a mature writer’s language is no mean feat. It is the mark of a great writer to maintain a childlike joy in the world and in his art, while honing his craft to a peak. In the simple story of Someone to Run With, David Grossman does precisely that.

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