4 out of 4 stars
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One day while going about his business as a writer the unexpected happens. The author returns from a short break only to discover that an invisible hand has left him a message. It is not an incoming email, as you may think, but one typed onto the document he is working on. And to add to the mystery the message reads: “Today, and only today, you may create a person.” Create a person? How surreal! The attached condition is that the person to be created must have been born in the same year as the author, and in the same city. Could it get any more bizarre than that? So instead of writing a novel with fictional characters the author creates a person. Yes, an actual person. She is the one his female character is always based on – a woman whom he had felt close to for a long time. She lives a parallel life to him, and she is called Raquel. If you are intrigued enough you can get to know more about Raquel in the flesh, as she engages in lively flirtation with the author throughout the pages of the book “Raquel Says (Something Entirely Unexpected)”.
The book is the brainwork of Mois Benarroch. It is the version translated from Spanish into English by Sally Seward in 2015. The author in 2009 was awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize in Israel, and in 2012 he won the Yehuda Amichai Prize for Poetry. Born in (Spanish) Morocco in 1959, he has since been living in Israel where his parents relocated when he was thirteen years old.
In the book Mois Benarroch takes the reader with him on a ride as he tries to re-discover and identify with his Moroccan roots. He talks about his loneliness, his feeling of being in exile in Israel and his conflicted personality. He sees his family’s move to Israel as “leaving my house alone, without my footsteps, and without my shadow.” I empathize with him about his feeling of alienation in his adopted land. The recreation of himself as a female serves as a means of escapism for him. In the guise of Raquel he lives a parallel life in Madrid and writes in his mother tongue Spanish, as if he never left his roots. His make-believe living in two worlds, two cultures thus mitigates his ambivalence.
I recommend the book as good material to gain some knowledge about the politics and society in Israel as a whole. The European (Ashkenazi) Jews have since the founding of Israel in 1948 constituted the elite class. Mois Benarroch’s parents migrated from Morocco to Israel because they are Sephardic Jews. The author alleges discrimination against his class of Jews. To quote him: “They see us as a challenge, a threat to Israeli society for not being Western enough.” This brings to mind the demonstration by the resettled Ethiopian Jews in Tel Aviv in 2015 against the perceived racism against them.
While I sympathize with the author, I get the impression that he carries his fight against the system too far. By writing “I talked non-stop to everyone about it” his insistence may be nauseating to the point of chilling the response of the powers that be. He seems to play his activist role of ‘voice for the voiceless’ overtime. No wonder that he says he is assaulted with letters and phone calls about being crazy. He becomes the problem then, instead of the solution to the wrongs that he alludes to. However, his cry is heartfelt when he laments that “They ask me to get rid of my past to be one of them. Not that I don’t want to, but that I can’t.” I will leave it up to readers to get a first-hand feel of his dilemma as they browse the pages of the book.
The style of writing is in the first person. In tone the author uses a monologue addressed to his other self. This makes the reading somewhat monotonous due to the multiple use of ‘I’ and ‘my’ and the lack of varied sentence structures. However, this is compensated for by the passion and the flow of the narrative. I find it not a book to read for pleasure or relaxation, but one that fuels thinking about cultural differences, prejudices, racism and assimilation. Sections of the book are in poetic form, and have to be read over and over slowly to absorb the meaning.
I picked the book expecting to review a novel, as identified on the cover. But I find it to be other than a novel. Perhaps the tag of a ‘Metaphysical Memoir’ may be more apt. The author admits, however, that: “Anything called a novel sells better, than those called something else.” That makes me laugh at his marketing gimmick.
I rate this book 4 out of 4 stars. Immigrants trapped in other cultures will identify with the book. It is also a good source of educative information to all about Israel. I liked living in its mystical fantasy that operates in the present, past and future simultaneously. Its combination of prose and poetry makes it unique. It is rich in imagery, as when the author writes that he and Raquel live in books just as words live among pages. I leave the rest up to your imagination, until you uncover the one-in-a-pair in the pages of “Raquel Says (Something Entirely Unexpected)”. Like a twist on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Raquel Says (Something Entirely Unexpected)
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