I was a bit dumbstruck when an acquaintance of mine, who lives in New York, said she ‘knew’ Israeli literature well—she’d read at least two books of poems by Yehuda Amichai and the autobiography by Amos Oz. As though Israeli literature stopped and started with two male Ashkenazi writers, both of them Jerusalemites, and both of them born before Israel was even a recognized country. I gently reminded her that there were hordes, hordes of men and women writing in Hebrew, Arabic, English that are also “Israeli” writers. I’ve read quite a few of them (and the bookstore shelves still overflow), most in translation, and wouldn’t begin to assume any deep knowledge. Appreciation is more the word.
Borges (who's Argentinian) and Garcia Marquez (who's Columbian), at least until Chilean writer Roberto Bolano assumed the crown. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE Bolano, having consumed Savage Detectives, 2666 (although the fourth of the fifth sections was a bit of a gory slog), and most recently The Skating Rink (even if one reviewer calls it ‘Bolana for beginners'). Like his predecessors, Bolano, especially after his 2003 death from liver failure, has become more myth than man. In this article his good friend, Horacio Castellanos Moya, said he believes, "Bolano would have found it amusing to know they (the cultural elite) would call him the James Dean, the Jim Morrison, or the Jack Kerouac of Latin American literature". (I love this picture of Bolano smoking that cigarette--such a bad boy!) In a similar vein, the award-winning Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe has spoken out about his dislike at being labeled "the father of modern African literature". “I don't want to be singled out as the one behind it because there were many of us – many, many of us," he said when asked about the title.
I suppose though, for those of us presented with the 1000s of books published each year with only enough time to read a fraction of those, that we manage to crack the binding of even a few works by those from other cultures is something to be applauded. So, while I might chastise my friend for suggesting that Amichai and Oz represent the whole of Israeli literature, their works are amazing, and that she has found time to read them, love them, well, that is more that can be said for most. Isn’t it?