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Novel's journey to Israel daringly blurs fact and fiction

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In 1970, American gangster Meyer Lansky fled justice officials in the U.S. and sought refuge in Israel. As a Jew, Lansky assumed that he would be embraced by Israel's Law of Return -- legislation that grants Jewish immigrants to Israel automatic citizenship. He was wrong.

In 2000, American journalist Hannah Groff travelled to Israel to investigate and write about the murder of an Israeli poet. Although a Jew, Groff assumed that she would be unaffected by Israel's allure, its history and heritage. She too was wrong.

Lansky and Groff are two of the many personalities who populate American author Zachary Lazar's new novel, I Pity the Poor Immigrant. This novel, like Lazar's award-winning earlier book, Sway, merges fictional people and events with real people and events to great literary effect.

This effect, however, does not come easily. This new book is both difficult and demanding to read. It maniacally jumps back and forth in time and place, and from one idea to another. It introduces myriad characters who seem to come and go on a whim, and contains disjointed snippets of memoir, poetry and journalism.

And yet, it's a brutally honest and beautifully written account of the need to love, be loved and belong.

It is journalist Hannah Groff's needs in particular that take centre stage in the narrative.

As the novel begins, Hannah, a divorced, late-30s, New York-based writer, is researching a story, something that she has done countless times before. But in this case, her research begets a personal journey, one that she did not expect and that she is loath to embrace.

In time, the story she is researching becomes a story about herself.

"A woman goes on a journey -- Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Tel Aviv, then back to New York," Hannah writes.

"I thought I was covering the murder of an Israeli poet named David Bellen, investigating a fairly straightforward crime story. But it became a story that led elsewhere, a story that led everywhere, a story I would have had no interest in if I hadn't accidently found myself inside it."

This discovery opens old wounds and new possibilities for Hannah. Although it twice takes her to Israel, it also takes her through the streets of New York, to the side of her estranged father, and to lunch with her former Hebrew school teacher, a Bergen-Belsen survivor named Gila Konig.

Gila, as it turns out, also happens to be a former girlfriend of Hannah's father, a former mistress of Meyer Lansky's, and a former lover of the poet whose murder Hannah is investigating.

If it all sounds complicated, that's because it is.

But the complexity is part of this novel's appeal. Lazar weaves the past and the present, the real and the imagined together, but he does not do it seamlessly.

Instead, he makes the reader think, ask questions and discover connections, all of which make his novel that much more rewarding to read.


Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 12, 2014 G6


Updated on Saturday, April 12, 2014 at 8:29 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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