A novel by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren harks back to the paradise of cosmopolitan Alexandria, where Jews raced horses, gambled and hopped from cafe to cafe. Review by Gerald Sorin in Haaretz (with thanks: Lily):
Stanley Beach, Alexandria
In the late 1970s, when Yitzhak Gormezano Goren was working on
“Alexandrian Summer,” his first novel, he was young and daring enough to
omit allusions to the Holocaust, Palestine and the kibbutz – themes
that suffused the novels of great Israeli writers including A. B.
Yehoshua, Amos Oz and Aharon Appelfeld. He did not refuse to engage with
these prevailing literary motifs or “Zionist questions,” as he has
recently called them; he simply chose to write about the world in which
he spent the first 10 years of his life – the opulent and glamorous
Egyptian city of Alexandria.
By using alternating points of view Goren delivers
an arresting story shaped by the same individual, during two periods in
his life, 20 years apart. We see, and, through the author’s narrative
magic, almost hear the voice of Robby, a 10-year-old boy growing up in
an insular, illusory cocoon of upper-middle class Sephardic Jews, and
the reminiscences and reflections of Robby as an adult.
Some critics have incorrectly labeled “Alexandrian
Summer” as fictionalized autobiography. The novel is certainly
self-referential in that the author, like Robby, grew up in Alexandria
in a well-to-do family, which – also like Robby’s – fled Egypt in 1951
to transplant itself in Israel. But there is much more in this story
that is the product of the author’s imagination.
Readers will be quickly drawn into a city the author
describes in lush, voluptuous terms as a “paradise by the sea” where
sensuality is pervasive. One could argue that Alexandria itself – and
not a thinly disguised Goren, or Robby – is the essential character of
this book. Though a boy of sweetly attractive innocence, Robby is simply
not the most important figure in the story. The Sephardic Hamdi-Ali
clan, including two sons and a daughter, is for the most part the focus
of Goren’s rich invention. They, along with Robby’s parents, Salem, an
Arab servant, and several gossipy neighbors provide the narrative and
the meaning of “Alexandrian Summer.”
We meet the Hamdi-Ali family in 1951 as new summer
tenants in Robby’s parents’ spacious house, walking distance from the
beach. Joseph Hamdi-Ali, handsome and patriarchal, is a respected famous
former jockey. His name and Turkish background, however, are a matter
of both wonder and doubt in the minds of other cosmopolitan Jewish
vacationers from Cairo, who converse in French, Italian, Spanish, Greek,
English and Ladino. Note the absence of Arabic.
Joseph has never recovered from the death of his
horse, which he appears to have loved even more than his wife. His
thoroughbred gone, his career as a jockey collapsed, he now counts on
his eldest son, David, a good-looking, obsessive and arrogant hotshot
jockey, to fulfill his hopes. At the same time, Joseph ignores his
11-year-old-son Victor. Often humiliated and sometimes beaten by his
distressingly impatient older brother, Victor, suffering and apparently
“disturbed,” seduces Robby and his friends into potentially harmful
homosexual activities, while several sets of absent parents are busy
playing cards or betting on the ponies.
These Alexandria Jews are cosmopolitan, and while
not entirely secular, they are more likely to be found gambling,
café-hopping and touring, than attending to their children or in the
synagogue, even on the Sabbath.
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