Sunday, August 12, 2012

Who's your audience? | Second Person Singular

Though I have my issues with Sayed Kashua's Second Person Singular (chief among which is a disturbingly spoiler filled back-cover blurb that includes a quote from literally the last ten pages of this 300-paged book...), it struck me as a very intelligent, well-written novel. The message seemed clear, the implications obvious. Yet when I started to read various foreign appraisals of the novel, it seemed that many readers did not understand the book as I did.

Here's what I think: Kashua writes for an Israeli audience. Predominantly a Jewish-Israeli audience. Just like his columns in the Ha'aretz Weekend Supplement are geared towards Israelis, Second Person Singular is written in a tone that indicates its audience rather comfortably. Too comfortably, at times.

Second Person Singular is all about the characters' external image, not so much their internal identity. The fact is that this is a novel about two Palestinian men, yet neither places much importance on their personal identity. One character builds his entire world view in order to appear a certain way; the other character sheds his identity with hardly a backward glance. It's all about how they appear to the outside world: one of the characters comments (somewhat dispassionately) on the fact that when using a Jewish (Ashkenazi) name, he is taken for an Ashkenazi Jew without anyone asking questions.

It's this use of external image that hammers home Kashua's cultural and social points. Not only does Kashua highlight the differences between Israeli and Palestinian society, he gently points out a lot of standard Israeli racism. An Arab looking for work will be assigned as a dishwasher in the kitchen. The exact same man - using a Jewish name - will find a job as a waiter. Kashua stresses this point without exaggerating it, such that the Israeli reader will feel the necessary shame without being overwhelmed. Kashua's use of young, liberal Israelis later in the novel also creates this weird incongruity that sat oddly with me.

Second Person Singular is written with that strange feeling in mind. Kashua aims to tap Israeli readers in that place where culture clashes. It's mostly effective, but it's geared towards a fairly well-defined group. Presented as it is now to the greater world, I can easily imagine how many readers would find it to be a distinctly odd, offset read.


  1. I really liked this book as well but I understand your reservations. It is rewritten for a very niche market. Mercifully I was spared the blurb spoiler by reading it on my Kindle.

  2. I liked this book a lot. I didn't see the spoilers or realize they were spoilers; I thought there was a lot of suspense as I read. It's probably one of my favorite books so far this year.

  3. Ryan, Marie - I should point out that I read this in the original Hebrew. As far as I can tell, the English translation doesn't have the massive spoilers of the Hebrew...


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