Top 10 books about Israel | Israel

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What constitutes a literature of Israel? Is it the holy triumvirate of Amos Oz, AB Yehoshua and David Grossman? I don’t really think so. Is it the poetry of Chaim Nachman Bialik? Maybe. Or could it be the marginal pamphlets and pocket books of long-forgotten Zionist romance and pulp Hebrew detectives, where David Tidhar – no relation – reigned supreme? Is it the westerns, horror novels and softcore porn by such delightfully named authors as “Mike Longshott” and “Kim Rockman”, that one can still find on dusty shelves or in the Jaffa flea market from time to time?

Maybe. They seem to me more honest, in their way.

James Joyce once said he couldn’t write of Ireland until he was away from her, and perhaps this is true of anyone’s home – that to be seen clearly it must be viewed from afar, with a love no longer blinded to the flaws. And it feels odd for me, having spent a decade writing novels on the intersection between the political and the fantastical, to have ventured on a big historical epic instead. Guided by a retired crime beat reporter, I delved deep into historical newspaper archives to explore the dark underbelly of an Israel I only thought I knew. The result was Maror, a novel that attempts to write an Israel that couldn’t be written from within.

How does one write of Israel? Each of these books answers the question differently.

1. One Mile and Two Days Before Sunset by Shimon Adaf
Adaf’s first novel is merely the opening shot in the recently translated Lost Detective trilogy, which treats the story of Israel as a fiction that must be deciphered by an author-detective lost in the futility of the attempt. A welcome introduction in English to one of Israel’s most adventurous literary novelists.

2. The Simulacra by Philip K Dick
I grew up on a kibbutz, on a diet of translated American science fiction, and never saw myself reflected until I read Philip K Dick. My favourite remains The Simulacra, one of his more obscure, mid-period novels bursting with invention, with its time-travelling Israelis and kibbutzim on Mars. Dick’s books gave me the confidence to eventually write my own.

3. Murder on a Kibbutz by Batya Gur
Gur captured what it was like to grow up on a kibbutz in a way no one else did, and her detective, Michael Ohayon, serves as the perfect intruder into that closed society, uncovering the simmering tensions beneath the sun-drenched communal ideal I was raised in.

4. All Backs Were Turned by Marek Hłasko
The “Polish James Dean” was a hard-living, hard-drinking exile from his native land who improbably ended up in turn-of-the-50s Israel. His two memorable years in the place he once called “a wild west of Holocaust survivors” were spent in the company of prostitutes, drunks and petty criminals . The result is this noir masterpiece, in which two small-time hoods, Dov and Israel, decide to seek new life in the southern city of Eilat. Tragedy inevitably follows. This is an Israel no one else wrote, by an outsider who saw it as no one else did.

Mahmoud Darwish.
Mahmoud Darwish. Photograph: Reuven Kopichinsky/AP

5. Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems by Mahmoud Darwish
“You have your victories and we have ours,” Darwish wrote, “we have a country where we see only the invisible.” The Palestinian national poet writes of two lands with one geography, and an attempt to include his poetry on the Israeli school curriculum notably caused political outrage. But no one captures the sense of a single land divided by competing histories better than Darwish, who knew that it takes an act of naming a land to possess it.

6. Palestine +100: Stories from a Century After the Nakba edited by Basma Ghalayini
This groundbreaking Palestinian science-fiction anthology doesn’t always make for easy reading, though there is humour woven through the despair in some of the stories, as in Ahmed Masoud’s Application 39, which imagines a Palestinian bid for the Olympics as an escalation of crises. The mass forgetting in Samir El-Youssef’s The Association is reminiscent of Howard Jacobson’s J, while Selma Dabbagh’s Sleep it Off, Dr Schott constructs an entire future world in a handful of pages. It makes for essential reading.

7. The Dope Priest by Nicholas Blincoe
This stoner thriller is now out of print, but Blincoe tackles the secretive world of land deals in the Occupied Territories with verve, and it was my first introduction to the subject. Blincoe captures the shadowy atmosphere well: one that involves, then and now, spy-like operations and the threat of death hanging over anyone willing to sell.

8. With This Night by Leah Goldberg
Hebrew wasn’t Goldberg’s first or even second language. Having learned it she then helped shape it, and her poems carry a vivid sense of place and individuality. This final collection sparkles, and poems such as Tel Aviv, 1935 simply capture the sense of a now-vanished world. One of my favourite Hebrew poetry collections, by one of my favourite poets.

9. The Vultures/Scumbags by Yoram Kaniuk
Ostracised by Israel’s literary establishment for most of his life, Kaniuk captures the horror of the 1948 war for a soldier abandoned by his commander, forced to hide amid the corpses as vultures circle overhead, in the first of these two classic novellas. In the second, two elderly fighters, disgusted by the modern state, go on a murderous spree against the “scumbags”, their ageing generation’s children (the Hebrew title, Nevelot, also meaning “corpses”) who they have grown to hate. Savage and beautiful in turns.

10. Just the Job: Some Experiences of a Colonial Policeman by Geoffrey J Morton
You’ll probably have to seek it out at the British Library, but this is just wonderful. Morton served in Palestine in the 30s and 40s, until he shot and killed Avraham “Yair” Stern, leader of the so-called Stern Gang. Morton subsequently survived several attempts on his life before he was transferred to the other side of the world. He details the bloody conflict between Arab and Jewish resistance groups as well as the more mundane type of crime, but it’s a very British sense of frustration with the natives that really captivates. An early chapter is dedicated to the harsh treatment of donkeys; and one of Morton’s first jobs as a policeman was to ensure the taxi drivers didn’t honk their horns so loudly – the noise greatly displeased the British commissioner. It’s a sharp reminder at times that it was the British empire that shaped the modern map of the Middle East – and many of its current conflicts.

Maror is published by Apollo (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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