Reviewed by Marcela Sulak
The title of Eshkol Nevo’s most recent book, Three Floors Up, refers to Sigmund Freud’s concept of the unconscious, which Freud likened to three floors of a mansion: the id, the ego, and the superego. The three protagonists of the three-part novel, each of whom lives on a different floor of an apartment building near Tel Aviv, experience crises that activate each aspect. Arnon, who lives on the first floor, is a father who has become obsessed with the idea that his young daughter has been sexually molested. On the second floor, Hani, a young mother of two whose husband is frequently away, fears she is losing her mind and is plagued by an inability to motivate herself to progress in the career she has always wanted. Devora is a retired judge residing on the third floor; her husband has died and her uncontrollable son is estranged.
But this compelling novel, Nevo’s fourth to be translated into English, moves beyond an analogy of Freud to examine the human need to tell stories, to make sense of the irrational behaviors that make up human society. As Devora says to her dead husband on their answering machine, after reading the complete Freud:
The three floors of the psyche do not exist inside us at all! Absolutely not! They exist in the air between us and someone else, in the space between our mouths and the ears we are telling our story to. And if there is no one there to listen — there is no story… The main thing is to talk to someone. Otherwise, alone, a person has no idea which of the three floors he is on, and he is doomed to grope in the dark for the light switch. (281)
Oddly, though, each of the three protagonists narrates his or her torturous story to a silent “you”: Arnon, to a taciturn army buddy he’s not seen in a long time; Hani, through letters she may or may not ever send, to her childhood friend Netta, who has since moved to America; and Devora, on carefully regulated segments of answering machine tape, to her dead husband, Michael. As befits the Freudian analogy, they seek justifications for their impulsive actions, encouragement and self-knowledge, and a movement toward compassion for others.
Most urgently, however, they seek to be heard. And because the interlocutors are absent, the reader often stands in for each “you.” This makes for a charged reading experience—often I felt that I could not put the book down. Not merely because I wanted to know what happened next, but because I also felt the protagonist depended upon me for his or her own very life.
Nevo is an engaging writer, able to tackle the most horrifying human acts and emotions with verve and matter-of-factness that serve the novel well. However, the first two parts were vaguely unsatisfying, as they ended without any resolution. The third part was more satisfying in that, for a moment, as Devora goes floor-to-floor in an attempt to rouse the inhabitants of the building to join the Tel Aviv tent protests on Rothschild Avenue, we are partially able to eavesdrop on the fallout from each crisis, gathering enough information to imagine an ending. This saves the novel from its own cleverness. And, in fact, in the character of Devora, we see growth and change, a movement toward resolution. Still, as a whole, the conclusion of the book is left largely to its afterlife in our imaginations.
This makes the issue of translation—the art that has been called the second life, or the afterlife, of a literary work—so crucial. For what Nevo has done is to demonstrate that translation means not only moving a world from one language to another, but within a language, moving a protagonist’s experience from one individual’s life to another’s through the act of empathy. The protagonists are often annoying or appalling, and how a reader responds to each probably depends largely on one’s gender, marital status, and the age of one’s children (if relevant). Sondra Silverston, who has translated Nevo’s three previous novels, is so graceful and skillful a translator that it is easy to forget we are reading a translation. This is no mean feat, because the novel is thoroughly Israeli in that it is predicated on an understanding of the universal draft and the Israeli judiciary system, as well as the centrality of family in Israeli society, and it refers to central political figures. Silverston also captures the novel’s wry humor and its holocaust obsession. Her translation’s accessibility allows the English version to embrace the question of what it means to be an individual in human civil society, whether we mean a marriage, a family, an apartment complex, a city, or a country.
Nevo, Eshkol. Three Floors Up. Tr. Sondra Silverston. New York: Other Press, 2017.