Bukiet's 'Strange Fire': Blind insight

April 22, 2001|By G. Jefferson Price III | By G. Jefferson Price III,Sun Staff

"Strange Fire," by Melvin Jules Bukiet, W. W. Norton. 353 pages. $24.95.

I know some people who will want to punch Melvin Jules Bukeit in the nose after reading this novel because it assaults icons of the Jewish state and places evil characters in the highest positions of government. So, if you can't take a joke, don't read the book.

Nathan Kazakov, the hero of the story, is not a happy guy. He starts off blinded as a soldier in Lebanon, and by the time the story ends, he is missing an ear, is scalded by boiling oil, has one lame foot and a broken hand and two bullet holes in other parts of his body. He is also gay. He hates everyone around him, except for his guide dog Goldie, his mother, a jilted Russian who brought him to Israel, and men who are the objects of his lust, especially the son of the prime minister of Israel.

Kazakov is a brilliant speech writer for that prime minister, whom he loathes. The story is set in the midst of an Israeli election. The prime minister, Simon ben Levi, seems to be styled after Benyamin Netanyahu. He is American-educated and right-wing, and he is willing to sacrifice anything and anyone in order to win. Just how far he will go to win re-election astonishes even the consummately cynical Kazakov, though there is a sort of biblical precedent.

Readers who know their Bible and who know about Israel and Israeli politics will enjoy this book the most. Those who don't may get lost in the labyrinth of history and politics, which, as Bukeit notes, are the passion of every Israeli. "It's how we know we're alive ... You've got Jews vs. Arabs, Ashkenazi vs. Sephardi Jews, First Aliyahniks vs. newcomers, haredim vs. secular Jews, a whole array of spectrums of identity politics at its most divisive."

Characters from all of these spectrums are in "Strange Fire," each marvelously, painfully characterized. The book is a commentary on all of them and their places in the conflict that dominates the news.

Kazakov, who is the narrator in this book, may be blind, but his descriptions of Israeli and Palestinian personalities and their environment -- the aromatic, warrened Old City, settlements in the Judean desert, the kosher blandness of food and drink in Israeli institutions from the prime minister's office to Hadassah Hospital -- are all vividly accurate. Kazakov can smell things that people who can see do not notice. His powerful sense of scent is a device that enhances the allegorical dimension of this book in ways that are hilarious or tragic.

"Strange Fire" is a thriller. There are fast cars, foot pursuits, even a wheelchair chase. There are spooky characters on both sides, including the Israeli prime minister's own masters of spycraft and dirty tricks. There is blood and gore and kinky sex. Bukeit's imagination is extraordinary and he brings it to every part of this novel.

And there's a message, particularly relevant these days.

Kazakov does not believe in God. "Our killers come from God," Kazakov notes after an Israeli zealot has fired a shot that rips off his ear. "They are produced on an assembly line and it doesn't make a difference if the factories are Palestinian propaganda shacks or Talmud Torahs. God's soldiers receive their marching orders from the Holy Writ. Each bomb is text, each bullet a commentary."

G. Jefferson Price III has been the foreign editor of The Sun since 1991. He was The Sun's Middle East correspondent based in Beirut from 1973 to 1975 and based in Jerusalem from 1982 to 1987.

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