Publication Date: Jul 13, 2010
List Price US $14.95
List Price US $14.95
Winner of the 2011 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Crime Novel
In Middle East lore the Debba is a mythical Arab hyena that can turn into a man who lures Jewish children away from their families to teach them the language of the beasts. To the Arabs he is a heroic national symbol; to the Jews he is a terrorist. To David Starkman, “The Debba” is a controversial play, written by his father the war hero, and performed only once, in Haifa in 1946, causing a massive riot. By 1977, David is living in Canada, having renounced his Israeli citizenship and withdrawn from his family, haunted by persistent nightmares about his catastrophic turn as a military assassin for Israel. Upon learning of his father’s gruesome murder, he returns to his homeland for what he hopes will be the final time. Back in Israel, David discovers that his father’s will demands he stage the play within forty-five days of his death, and though he is reluctant to comply, the authorities’ evident relief at his refusal convinces him he must persevere. With his father’s legacy on the line, David is forced to reimmerse himself in a life he thought he’d escaped for good. The heart-stopping climax shows that nothing in Israel is as it appears, and not only are the sins of the fathers revisited upon the sons, but so are their virtues—and the latter are more terrible still.
Disguised as a breathtaking thriller, Avner Mandelman’s novel reveals Israel’s double soul, its inherent paradoxes, and its taste for both art and violence. The riddle of the Debba—the myth, the play, and the novel—is nothing less than the tangled riddle of Israel itself.
Excerpt from The Debba
It was in Toronto in 1977, seven years after I had last seen him, that I learned of my father’s murder. When the phone rang I half expected to hear Aunt Rina’s
voice, inviting me to the Passover seder. Instead I heard the line crackle and a
faint voice said, “Starkman? David Starkman?”
In an instant I knew. “Ken?” I croaked in Hebrew—yes.
“This is Ya’akov Gelber. I am an attorney in Tel Aviv—”
“My father,” I said.
“I am afraid so.”
Perspiration broke out on my chin as Mr. Gelber said without preliminaries that my father had died. “You of course have my most profound sympathies,” he said in Hebrew, “but there are some…urgent matters to discuss, else I would not call you on the holiday.”
It was only April but the Toronto weather was freakishly hot and my cheap one-room apartment on Spadina Avenue was baking in the heat. My sole white shirt, which I had put on for an evening out with Jenny, was soaking with sweat, as Jenny kept massaging my neck, the back of my head, the veins at my temples. I again had a migraine after last night’s black dreams. It often hit me when evening fell, and so we rarely went out. I had hoped tonight would be better, but it wasn’t. I dabbed at my face with a dish towel and tried to concentrate on Mr. Gelber’s voice, which was explaining in my ear how someone had broken into my father’s shoe store the previous night while he was taking inventory, and following the robbery (an unsuccessful attempt, really, since nothing of value was taken), my father was stabbed in the heart with one of his own knives—the one used for cutting soles. “It was probably an Arab robber,” Mr. Gelber said, his voice neutral, “because the body was also mutilated.”
“In this fast-paced thriller, the philosophical wrestling matches the action blow for blow.”—Hadassah Magazine
“Sharp, biting prose distinguishes this first novel from Israeli author Mandelman… The author deftly blends a murder mystery with a nuanced examination of the intransigent Israeli-Arab conflict.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“An absorbing and captivating novel that bridges the uncomfortable political gap between the Palestinian and Israeli sides.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A first-rate debut novel that tackles current issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict while revealing the paradoxes of Israeli life for those who embrace the arts yet must deal with violence on a daily basis.” —Booklist, starred review
“…a literary thriller that powerfully confronts uncomfortable paradoxes around the founding of Israel. The issues it raises are as near as the headlines, and the novel seems likely to be as controversial as the play that forms its centerpiece.”—Library Journal
1. How powerful are David’s black dreams? Trace the various moments throughout the novel where they become more or less powerful. Do you think he can ever be completely rid of them?
2. What was Isser’s motivation for writing “The Debba”? Why do you think he insisted David produce the play so soon after his death–especially when he himself witnessed the conflict it could bring?
3. Discuss David’s attraction to Ruthy versus his attraction to Jenny. What about each woman captivates or distracts him? What do you think brings David and Ruthy back together? What does each woman see in David?
4. Discuss Isser’s friendships with both Paltiel and Abdullah. How did the relationships evolve from his military days to his death? Do you see any similarities in David and Ehud’s relationship?
5. Why is David considered such a threat, so dangerous they send assassins after him? Are they afraid of him or the play? Where does David find the determination to overcome the obstacles he encounters?
6. Discuss family loyalty in The Debba. Does it differ between the Jewish and Arab families we meet?
7. The Debba is steeped in mystery—of both the past and the present. From the myth of the Debba to the circumstances surrounding Isser’s death, discuss the power these secrets have over the characters.
8. Where, and among whom, does David feel most at ease? Does he fit in anywhere? Will he ever be able to escape his past?
9. Has this fictional account influenced your knowledge or feelings about Israel’s history or current situation?
10. What is Abdullah’s ultimate motive for helping David stage the play?
11. How does the revelation of David’s true father influence David’s feelings about where he fits in the Israeli community? Did your opinion of David’s character change when you learned the truth? Were you surprised?
12. What was your opinion of Isser’s play, “The Debba”? Discuss the play’s supporters and protesters and the intensity of their opinions.
13. Of all the characters seeking vengeance in The Debba, do any of them attain it?