Wednesday 26 July 2017

Arresting trip into the heart of humanity

Non-fiction: Beat, Rowan Somerville, Lilliput Press, €13.99

Anglo-Irish writer Rowan Somerville untangles the roots of violence, faith and tribal conflict, and the possibility of redemption in 'Beat'
Anglo-Irish writer Rowan Somerville untangles the roots of violence, faith and tribal conflict, and the possibility of redemption in 'Beat'
Beat by Rowan Somerville

Hilary A White

For a novelist embarking on a first foray into non-fiction, some fundamental considerations must be addressed that may not have been encountered before. When the subject matter is fraught with tragedy and injustice, a great responsibility comes, not only with detailing the real lives involved, but also bringing balance where it may not seem apparent.

In 2001, Anglo-Irish writer Rowan Somerville was glued to TV news reports of a horrific suicide bombing that took place outside a Tel Aviv nightclub called the Dolphinarium. Twenty-one lives were taken that night, most of them young teenage girls who were waiting to gain access. Like the recent Manchester attacks, the age of the victims was particularly disheartening. But it was what happened in the immediate aftermath of the event that consumed Somerville to the point that he felt he had no choice but to travel to Israel in search of answers.

As revenge for the massacre (which is detailed with grisly forensic precision in the opening passages), a random Palestinian gentleman by the name of Mazan Al-Joulani was shot in the neck the very next day by an Israeli settler. His heart was left unscathed by the killing.

At the same time, Yigal Cohen, an Israeli man, was in desperate need of a new heart. Al-Joulani's family defied bitterness and tribal animosity by agreeing to donate Mazan's heart to save Cohen, a Jew.

International media looked on as humanity, grace and whiffs of symbolism infected the poisonous backdrop of the Second Intifada.

The entire saga - from the bombing to the murder of Mazan to an interview with Cohen - is charted in condensed, neatly arranged intervals interspersed with chapters charting the myriad variables stewing away inside a conflict in which everyone has, perhaps too hastily, made up their minds. Somerville's 10 years of dogged research are apparent. He walks with us through everything from terrorist tactics and bomb science, to the history of the state of Israel, the evolving relationships and distortions of the three Abrahamic religions, apartheid South Africa, and the history of the complex medical operation around which all these thematic planets are orbiting.

The essence of what it is that makes us human - apart from a healthy ticker - is the substrate here. Somerville catches glimpses of it writhing to free itself from a grubby and vicious battle between Middle-Eastern neighbours. Everyone, from gorgeous but surly baristas to the father of the actual suicide bomber, is a brushstroke in themselves, and the result is all kinds of colours and temperatures throughout. Without Somerville's keen interest in the people in front of him, Beat wouldn't have its arresting sense of sanguine vitality.

Like the best non-fiction, leaving space for the subjective actually improves understanding. Somerville's parents were both cardiologists of international renown. As he mentions in the prologue, his parents were obsessed with hearts (it was not unusual to find a sample organ thawing in the family fridge). There is Jewish lineage on his mother's side, while his father, a Dubliner by birth, was ahead of his time in imparting a progressive concept of religious practice to his children.

The final element to Somerville's unassuming alchemy is his struggle to reconcile his stance on Israel. By personalising his investigation and making it the quest of an enquiring mind desperate for closure on a deeply divisive geopolitical issue, he forces us to also look at where we stand. This simple elicited response is the hallmark of only the greatest works of non-fiction and documentary filmmaking, and it is what lifts Beat from being a very well mapped-out journey through the Israel-Palestine conflict to being something far more gravid and far-reaching. One of the most-important releases of 2017, in any genre.

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