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Summary and book reviews of The Debba by Avner Mandelman

The Debba

by Avner Mandelman

The Debba
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  • Paperback:
    Jul 2010, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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Book Summary

Disguised as a breathtaking thriller, Avner Mandelman’s novel reveals Israel’s double soul, its inherent paradoxes, and its taste for both art and violence. (Paperback Original)

In Middle East lore the Debba is a mythical Arab hyena that can turn into a man who lures Jewish children away from their families to teach them the language of the beasts. To the Arabs he is a heroic national symbol; to the Jews he is a terrorist. To David Starkman, "The Debba” is a controversial play, written by his father the war hero, and performed only once, in Haifa in 1946, causing a massive riot.

By 1977, David is living in Canada, having renounced his Israeli citizenship and withdrawn from his family, haunted by persistent nightmares about his catastrophic turn as a military assassin for Israel. Upon learning of his father’s gruesome murder, he returns to his homeland for what he hopes will be the final time. Back in Israel, David discovers that his father's will demands he stage the play within forty-five days of his death, and though he is reluctant to comply, the authorities’ evident relief at his refusal convinces him he must persevere.

With his father’s legacy on the line, David is forced to reimmerse himself in a life he thought he’d escaped for good.The heart-stopping climax shows that nothing in Israel is as it appears, and not only are the sins of the fathers revisited upon the sons, but so are their virtues—and the latter are more terrible still. Disguised as a breathtaking thriller, Avner Mandelman’s novel reveals Israel’s double soul, its inherent paradoxes, and its taste for both art and violence. The riddle of the Debba—the myth, the play, and the novel— is nothing less than the tangled riddle of Israel itself.

Paperback Original

Prologue

Men in my family always left their place of birth. When my father was seventeen years old he bought passage on a boat to Yaffo. It was a two-way ticket. The British, who ruled Palestine then, would never have let him enter without it. He did not have an immigration certificate.

I am told he was a quiet, slim youth, strangely intense, and fierce when aroused. My grandfather once had to buy off the Head of Police after my father had beaten up the son of a rich barrel-merchant. The young goy taunted my father and called him a dirty Jew. The taunter was big and fat, and smoked cigarettes. My father, who was half the goy’s size, almost killed him with a stick he had grabbed from a lame old charwoman. It took three policemen to tear my father off his victim.

Aunt Rina, who was eight then, claims no one could pry the stick from my father's hand. Finally the Chief of Police broke my father's thumb with a hammer. They put my father in jail, where he stayed for four days. He was...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

If The Debba were a building it might be an M.C. Escher-like structure with staircases doubling back onto themselves creating an awesome network of levels and plotlines. On the surface this may appear to be a murder mystery, but from page one it became clear to me that it was much more than I was expecting... This is a fine book for readers who, like me, have basically only broad-brush knowledge of Middle East politics, have few preconceptions about said politics and who relish ingeniously multi-layered stories.   (Reviewed by Donna Chavez).

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Media Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The author deftly blends a murder mystery with a nuanced examination of the intransigent Israeli-Arab conflict.

Kirkus Reviews

An absorbing and captivating novel that bridges the uncomfortable political gap between the Palestinian and Israeli sides.

Booklist

Starred Review. A first-rate debut novel that tackles current issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict while revealing the paradoxes of Israeli life for those who embrace the arts yet must deal with violence on a daily basis.

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Beyond the Book

Yiddish
Mandelman's novel is generously peppered with Yiddish words and phrases, complete with translations. There are other Yiddish words that require no translation having found their way into common English usage; words such as bagel, maven and klutz, have become so widespread that it would be difficult to spend a day without hearing, reading or uttering one of them. Others, such as schmooze, kvetch and shtick, while not as routinely used are nonetheless virtually irreplaceable in reference to the activities or things they describe.

Many people mistakenly believe Yiddish to be a kind of ethnic jargon. However, it is best described as a fusion language that shares a common ancestry with both German and English, in addition ...

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