For the JC October 26 2019
Politically, Israel may be a toxic issue in Britain. But at the same time there is a huge appetite for Israeli culture — as expressed in its food, arts, films, TV and, now more recently, its novels.
So it should be no surprise — except for the writers themselves —that for the first time since the 1955 creation of the Crime Writers’ Association literary awards, known as the Daggers, two Israelis have been shortlisted for the prestigious prizes.
One of the nominees, Lavie Tidhar, who has been chosen for the short story shortlist, has a shelf full of literary awards, but he is thrilled at the nomination. The winners are due to be announced tonight, Thursday October 24, in Greater London. Writing on his website, Tidhar said: “The Daggers are huge, and this was a complete surprise! This is my first nomination for a crime fiction award, and a rare nomination for short fiction, so it’s a double hooray! I really don’t expect to win, but it’s lovely just being nominated”.
The kibbutz-born Tidhar is correct: the Daggers are indeed huge, the biggest award in the crime fiction world and a sign of approbation by fellow crime writers.
Tidhar, 42, is currently based in London and has lived and worked in the UK, South Africa, Laos and Vanuatu. He writes in English and since 2003 has won many awards for his short and long-form fiction, the most recent being his book, Osama, which won the 2012 World Fantasy Award for best novel; the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize for Best British Fiction in 2015, and the John Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 2017. For the Daggers, Tidhar was shortlisted for his short story, Bag Man, in a collection called The Outcast Hours, edited by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin.
Some of Tidhar’s prize-winning novels have strong Jewish connections: Unholy Land is a detective story set in a world after the Second World War, the state of Israel was not created, but Jews instead settled in, and founded their state, in Uganda. A previous book, A Man Lies Dreaming, featured Hitler as a down-at-heel private eye in London, actually working for Jewish gangsters.
His fellow Israeli nominee, Dov Alfon, is on the International Dagger shortlist, which is given to fiction first published in a foreign language. Alfon’s thriller, A Long Night in Paris, was first published in Israel in 2016 and was an immediate best-seller, topping the charts in that year and again in 2017. And it has been a roaring success in Britain, opening a little-seen window into an unknown world.
For Alfon is a former intelligence officer in the once secret Unit 8200, on which the book is loosely based. Like his main protagonist, Colonel Ze’ev Abadi, Alfon was born in Paris but brought up in Tel Aviv. Unlike Abadi, however, Alfon became editor-in-chief of the left-wing newspaper, Ha’aretz, but then left Israel for Paris, where he now lives, re-discovering the streets and buildings of his childhood.
As Alfon acknowledges, many readers around the world became emotionally invested in what happened next to the fictional Abadi and his sharp-witted female colleague, Lieutenant Oriana Talmor. “I was so busy since the book launched in the UK and Europe that I haven’t had time to write”, he confessed. But the success of the book internationally led to an immediate buying of TV rights by the Israeli company, Keshet — and the decision to make a six-to-eight episode series, with the door held open for a second season, has led to “more pressure to write a sequel”. Alfon hopes to get started in 2020.
His book, he says, is an examination of Israel and of France. So Keshet wanted two writers, one French, one Israeli, to write the TV shows. Through a French company, Elephant, Keshet have signed up Swedish-French writer David Dusa to work on the French episodes, while much admired Israeli screenwriter Leora Kamenetsky will write the Tel Aviv material. Laughing, Alfon said that he had declined to write the screenplays himself after an early meeting with Keshet, in which one of the producers wondered whether Colonel Abadi ought to have a sister, in the TV programmes, unlike in the novel. “Such discussions,” Alfon says wryly, “are not good for my health”. (Anxious readers can be reassured, there will not be an Abadi sister).
Although Alfon has been away from the intelligence world for 10 years, he was at pains to make his fictional Unit 8200 as accurate as possible, without giving away any secrets. “What I didn’t want was for the head of Mossad to throw the book aside and say the depiction was nothing like the real thing.” In any case, he says, the whole point of a unit like Unit 8200 is that it changes constantly, so he is content about any criticism.
Perhaps Alfon’s favourite anecdote from the international success of “A Long Night In Paris” is the phone conversation he had with his concerned German translator. “He told me that the publisher was very nervous about how I had written the ways in which the junior Israeli military ranks spoke to their superiors. The publisher had asked him to double-check: do they really speak like that?” That such a response came from the German publisher pleased Alfon immoderately.