Laura Blumenfeld, visiting vengeance

March 24, 2002|By Robert Ruby | By Robert Ruby,Sun Staff

Revenge: A Story of Hope, by Laura Blumenfeld. Simon & Schuster, 375 pages, $25.

The gunman was not home," Laura Blumenfeld's book about her search for revenge memorably begins. There she was, at the West Bank home of the Palestinian who shot her father years ago in Jerusalem. But what to do once the enemy is almost in sight? She explores the terrifying satisfactions revenge promises and the unpredictable results of having your darkest wishes fulfilled. The result is a remarkable, affecting book.

In the context of today's murderous violence in the Middle East, the long-ago shooting of David Blumenfeld might barely merit a mention. In 1986, Omar Khatib, a Palestinian, fired one shot at the elder Blumenfeld, an American tourist who was wearing a yarmulke and taking a walk. Khatib had poor aim. The bullet merely grazed the American's scalp. Doctors prescribed a bandage, a tetanus shot and a day's rest -- that was all. Except for a scar hidden by his hair, David Blumenfeld fully recovered, to the point of apparently not giving much thought to the man who shot him.

Laura Blumenfeld suffered a deeper wound. "How many times had I pictured the scene?" she writes, imagining a confrontation with the shooter. "I would reach out through the darkness and grab his collar. I would shake him so hard, he would become someone else. All I knew was that a finger out there somewhere had pulled the trigger on my father. What if I actually tracked him down?"

The unexpected form her vengeance takes and her investigation of all the sour flavors of revenge make her account unlike any other reportage from the Middle East.

I briefly knew (and worked with) the author in Israel a decade ago, and Blumenfeld later became a staff writer for The Washington Post. She told virtually no one about the shooting and her search for the gunman, including the many people she interviewed about revenge. She did not reveal that her questions were attempts get closer to the shooter.

And that is one of the unsettling paradoxes of the book. Wanting to confront Omar Khatib, she feared what he might do if he knew her identity. The closer she comes, the greater the fear, the greater the dissembling. She relied on a "precariously truthful way" that significantly colors her actions, twisting the outcome of her search in ways she could not have foreseen.

She is brave as both a daughter and writer. I know of no other book that delves as intimately into an extended Palestinian family, though she all the while acknowledges that the Khatibs remain The Other. Her secretiveness about her real goal means that until almost the last moment she remains just Laura to them. Not a Jew, not a victim's daughter.

So we come to know the Khatibs, and we spend considerable time in company with two generations of Blumenfelds about whom we learn far too much -- courtships, marriages and re-marriages that are mistakenly rendered as central to the story. She pursues too many tangents -- the theory and practice of revenge in Sicily, the revenge fantasies of soccer fans, a chillingly precise calculus of revenge in Iran -- that distract from her search for Omar Khatib.

She finds him. It is not giving too much away to say that they then conduct a forbidden correspondence, he from an Israeli prison, she from her apartment in Jerusalem. The reader can judge each party through the letters she quotes.

An odd complaint, but she is too good of a story-teller. Her artfulness intrudes, so that the book too often is about her writing the book rather than the nature of revenge. Too many times, she lets slip that she is having a wonderful time doing this, that writing a book is a thrill. That is more than a quibble. But she redeems herself at the end. Though the author sometimes loses her way, this is a serious, stirring book posing questions tragically relevant for Israelis and Palestinians. Which will it be: An eye for an eye, or turn the other cheek? And how do you take that eye? And how can you turn?

Robert Ruby is The Sun's foreign editor and its former Middle East correspondent. A paperback edition of his Unknown Shore: the Lost History of England's Arctic Colony will be published in June. He also wrote Jericho: Dreams, Ruins, Phantoms, a history of that city.

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