Ronit Matalon's Ethnic Masterpiece

Article excerpt

[1] The One Facing Us (1995), Ronit Matalon's first novel is a work of immeasurable originality and force about cultural displacement and the search for roots. An astonishing ballast of narrative pyrotechnics, it synthesises the staple mechanics of the ethnic novel which values the atavistic ancestral elements and the rich tapestry of traditions and folklore as a source of artistic inspiration with the treasury of postmodern modulations. It is an attempt to invigorate the "family roots" novel, which had seemed to assume exhausted, shopworn traits with its stylised pageantry and socio-philosophical form. She succeeds, by deploying a non-linear plot line and a sagacious device to probe the cultural displacement of an Egyptian family, its disintegration and dispersal to Israel, New York and Africa after the Second World War.

[2] According to the author, her primary concern at first was finding the means of expression to be used in depicting the constantly intertwined wondrous people and action of the book:

   This thing of writing a novel always seemed to me to be a non-simple
   challenge. It is not as if one comes into a prepared conformation
   and empties into it his material. My preoccupation with the
   framework is also a generational and mental concern, and because the
   novel is made up of so many ingredients, the question was how to
   glue them together, how to fuse them and whether they should be
   melded together." [my italics] (Green 1995, 5)

[3] Indeed, when Beni Tziper, a fellow writer of Sephardi fiction, speaks of the fundamental change to have occurred in the broad cycle of ethnic literary works, he points out that the shifting patterns and perspectives have been in the format of such works, rather than in the content. Specifically, Tziper refers to Matalon's The one Facing Us as a definite trend showing that a geo-cultural area of Jewish existence (namely, the Levantine reality) which in the past has been presented through a fixed naturalistic prism, can flourish in successive forms by someone who is daring enough to clothe her vast mural of characters and particular social strata in new folds, "It seems to me that recently there has been a separation from the conventional realistic method." (Green, 5) [4] Events in The One Facing Us are seen through the eyes of Esther, a rebellious and independent thinking seventeen year old. The troubled teenager is sent from her home in Tel Aviv by her mother Ines and grandmother Nona Fortuna to visit her maternal uncle Jacques Sicourelle in Cameroon. While there, the astutely observant Esther is 'held hostage' by her wealthy uncle, a factory owner who keeps her passport locked away in his office safe and aunt Marie Ange, who schemes to marry the sassy teenager to Erouan, her son from a previous marriage. Meanwhile, the headstrong Esther, who spends time fishing mango leaves out the vast estate's pool, befriends the household's Cameroonian servants, disregarding her relatives' opposition and criticism. She is incensed and appalled by her uncle's retrograde, colonial existence of tyranny and corruption.

[5] At the same time, she begins to try and piece together the mosaic of her family's story, the aspirations and fortunes that led her uncle to Africa on his own and her mother to Israel. The ossified crust of the past cracks open as she imagines the clan's home in Cairo prior to the war. Here, the lost world of the epic family saga yields to the girl's memory, aided by seventeen old snapshots kept by the various members of the family and the raw material of her elders' tales. The fable like search for the puzzle pieces of her roots leads the narrator to become the genealogist of her kin and to put forward a kaleidoscopic chronicling of a people who always felt like nomads and never quite belonged, even after they have settled in their new 'homeland'. The result is a plethora of brilliant and insightful observations, highly illustrative, either expressing a concrete situation, a thought or a mood, in the process deflating any sentimental delusions that might have been held about her ancestors' identities. …