Love, Loss, and Grief in Tel Aviv, Beirut, and Beyond

cover of the book The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land

The eleven stories that make up Omer Freidlander’s debut collection The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land work as fragments that form a prismatic whole, perspectival flourishes that coalesce around a few common and recurring themes. Of these, the twin themes of longing and loss appear the most, and thread the stories with a string of strength, lucidity and wisdom that belies the author’s twenty-eight years. Freidlander grew up in Tel Aviv, and the entirety of the collection takes place in and around his homeland; the stories stretch out across time, here recalling the years directly following the Israeli Declaration of Independence (“The Minaturist”), now placing events in the contemporary and ongoing conflict in Gaza (“Checkpoint”, amongst others). Throughout, a timbre of stark melancholy, mourning and grief abides, leavened with elements of the near-fantastic and a comic darkness that at times recalls the work of Salman Rushdie, Haruki Murakami, and other members of the magical-realist diaspora.

Opener “Jaffa Oranges” introduces the themes of internecine conflict and its consequent destruction of personal relationships that Friedlander returns to like a musical reprise throughout the book, detailing an old man’s regret over a lost friend and secret betrayal. “Alte Sachen” looks through teenage lust at the desire to transcend the weighty burden of religious tradition while still leaning on the meaning implicit in it. “Checkpoint,” in its clear-eyed examination of an aging political activist’s shame and anger over the memory of her deteriorating relationship with her recently-deceased soldier son, echoes Gunter Grass’ 2002 novel Crabwalk, while Kurt Vonnegut’s droll eye-smile lurks beneath the absurd black humor of “The Sephardi Survivor.”

The ephemeral, apparitional nature of forbidden and doomed love (isn’t all love, in one way or another, doomed?) forms the nexus around which “The Sand Collector” turns. Friedlander has a knack for writing about romantic love in a way that gives its power its due, acknowledging the chaos and caprice that are part and parcel of the promise of Eros; because of this, he is able to convey love’s sweetness, its joy, without the slightest trace of sentimentality. The concerns of this story whet the palate for the real showstopper of the collection, the aptly-titled “Scheherazade and Radio Station 97.2 FM”: ostensibly an homage to the titular character’s reputation for mesmeric storytelling, the surface of the tale deals with three soldiers trapped in a radio station in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War with a beautiful DJ who shares a name with the MC of One Thousand and One Nights. What starts as a story firmly grounded in realism quickly becomes something much stranger; a surrealistic, almost Lynchian fog settles over the events, and the line separating myth and fairy tale from reality becomes blurry and diffuse. Layers of allegory and metaphor are at work here, and what may look like a retelling of the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf might turn out to be something else entirely upon a second or third reading. It is this kind of textual richness that situates Friedlander in the ranks of masters like Murakami, and with successful experiments like this story already under his belt, it’s thrilling to anticipate what he could do with a longer form.

More delightful weirdness follows: “High Heels” gives the reader a tour of Tel Aviv and its outlying areas via its rooftops, and the interactions between the main characters – so-called “urban climbers” – have the disarming charm and offbeat rhythm of a Jim Jarmusch film, with a strange and unsettling denouement. “Jellyfish in Gaza” revisits the leitmotif of wartime atrocity, this time writ small in the mind’s eye of a boy worried about his combat-weary father. The penultimate “Walking Shiv’ah” – another standout – foregrounds the impact of military conflict on all-too-human characters. When a woman is alerted that one of her two brothers has been killed in combat but not which one – and that the only way to find out will be to visit the infirmary for the wounded in a dangerous area – she and her cart-bound, paraplegic mother set off on a seven-day Kafkaesque quest through a bleak, amoral landscape to find out for which son they must sit Shiv’ah. The climax is an appropriately heartbreaking stunner, and demonstrates Friedlander’s mastery of the airtight architectural skill so necessary in building an effective short story. Closing story “The Miniaturist” brings the themes of loss and longing back into high relief, a paean to the misrecognitions of childhood and the difficulty of growing up.

By turns bracingly elegiac and deeply, darkly funny, The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land is a stunning debut, and marks the arrival of a writer of serious gifts; I was left wanting more, and I can think of no higher compliment to pay a spinner of tales.

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