Alon Hilu: The House of Rajani

The House of Rajani is the story of Isaac Jacques Luminsky, a Jewish argonomist from Eastern Europe, and his encounter with the Rajani family, especially the son Salah, who is a psychologically disturbed young teenager. The year is 1895 and the land is under Ottoman control, but European Jews are gradually colonising the area. Luminsky intends to buy land and contribute to the development of the colony while engaging in his argonomy studies on the rich soil.

Salah is a strange boy, an outcast among his peers, a loner who loves reading and writing in his room. He has visions and hallucinations, although he cannot give meaning to these, what he sees is the future, the Nakba of 1948.

Salah befriends Luminsky, and what’s more, has almost platonic feelings for him. Luminsky, on the other hand, wants to help the boy, although he has the underlying intentions of acquiring their land through an affair with his mother.

The novel doesn’t depict Luminsky in a very positive light, and being highly allegorical, the book has attracted criticism from some Israeli readers. (Hilu won the Sapir prize for this novel but it was later withdrawn.) Hilu sees the novel as an alternative way of telling the history of Israel, and we understand that as an author, he considers it his duty to provide this perspective to his people.

The novel is narrated in the format of diary entries, alternating between Luminsky and Salah. As the events unfold, we learn that the relationships between the main three characters become more and more complicated, with some feelings and actions we can only infer, or guess, from the diaries.

The pace is rather slow in the first half of the novel but it picks up speed in the second half, before reaching a powerful finale. The atmosphere in the garden of the Rajani estate is like that in Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, and the narration is at once visual and dramatic. What I love the most about the novel is its style, thanks to the translator Evan Fallenberg, who has done a wonderful job. It’s ornate but luminous and flowing – being a translator, I couldn’t help thinking about words and phrases in my first language, if I were to translate the novel.

Trivia: The author admits to having consulted a fortuneteller in the process of writing. See his website: http://www.alonhilu.com/books-dajani.html

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