Hunting for Trilobites: An Interview with Dror Burstein

By Rohan Kamicheril

Image of Hunting for Trilobites: An Interview with Dror Burstein

I met Dror Burstein on a cool May morning on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. His wry, slow-burning humor is easy to relate to the gently idiosyncratic style of his writing. Words without Borders published his story “The Dakar Courier” in 2010, and I was fresh off reading Netanya, his latest book to appear in English (just released by Dalkey Archive Press in a mesmerizing translation by Todd Hasak-Lowy). We talked about the lack of trilobites in Hebrew literature (the cause of some consternation to his protagonist, also a Dror Burstein, though not necessarily any relation to the author), the burden of the past, the varieties of kitsch, and the Met’s (then relatively new) production of Wagner's Die Walküre



Rohan Kamicheril: In Netanya you talk about pink kitsch and black kitsch. What’s the difference between the two?

Dror Burstein: Yesterday at Wagner the hall was packed with hundreds of people who’d paid a lot of money—me too, two hundred and fifty bucks. And they seemed very happy. They were clapping, and I thought about how Wagner has turned into what we see in Hollywood, like the Lord of the Rings, for example—that motif of the sword that is broken, and the man, and the ring of course. Wagner is sort of a predecessor of American pop culture. When you read the text of a Wagner opera, it's absolutely horrible. One typical example—the hall almost laughed—was when Siegmund calls his father in despair, and it's very beautiful musically, and asks him for this promised sword. You can never imagine such a thing in a Jewish play! Or in a—well there’s no such thing as a Jewish opera really, but in Jewish texts, it's completely the opposite. In Jewish, and even in early Christian culture, when Jesus cries to his father on the cross, he doesn't get an answer, which is more realistic. I don't know if this is black or pink kitsch—I guess Wagner has a little bit of both. The love story is on the pink side and the swords and death are on the black side. I thought, I was really an idiot to buy this ticket. I really think that any small Schubert piano piece or any two-minute Chopin piece for piano has more truth in it than this. But audiences won't pay two hundred and sixty dollars to hear a Schubert piano sonata.

RK: Is that a form of black kitsch?  

DB: [laughs] And I'm obviously part of it. Because I knew the plot, and I know Wagner very well, and all the same, it has a certain magic and so I went!

RK: At the beginning of Netanya, the narrator, also a "Dror Burstein," talks about the subjects of Hebrew literature and how there are no trilobites in it. Is this a complaint? What’s your take on Hebrew literature today?

DB: There are some amazing things being written in Israel. Not very many books a year, but you don't have to have a lot of literature to have a good period, literarily speaking.  The thing is that almost none of it is being translated into other languages. Because it's not profitable, it's hard to translate, for many reasons. So the image that most Western readers have about Israeli literature is very distorted. It's not entirely false of course, but for me, the most interesting and important literature of the last ten years hasn't been translated at all. And if we come back to your first question, it isn't translated because it is anti-Wagnerian, anti-—

RK: Climactic?

DB: No, it has its climaxes, but not in this sense. It’s no wonder that Apocalypse Now took its musical theme from Wagner. It's very operatic. I think it just searches for climaxes in other places. It's subtle, and more lyrical. I guess that most readers after hearing [hums the refrain from die Walküre] just can't hear the ring of a bell or tiny noises like a spoon on a glass of tea. It's a matter of taste, of course, but I'm talking from my own perspective, that's all, but that's what you asked me! I can give you names, but I'm not sure it's going to tell you anything.

RK: But there’s a lot of apocalypse in Netanya, too—the prospect of meteorites coming out of the sky for one thing. It seems like apocalypse is in the background of all of that.

DB: Even this can be treated in two different ways. One way is typical in the American film industry. I just saw a film a week ago. It takes place in New York, I forget the name, it has Tom Cruise—

RK: Oblivion.

DB: Oblivion! Exactly. It's very fun to see. I went with my kids. And you see things from around here—the Empire State Building buried and so on. So, yes, oblivion can happen and annihilation of cultures can happen, but the question is, what do you do with that? You can play on this string of fear and invent a tale with a hero who rescues the world—that's one option. I don't think that's the most interesting option. For me, the far future, of cities and of cultures, and their far past are interesting not because it's the past or the future, but because it can tell us something about our present, and about the rarity of the present.

RK: Is there something in particular about meteors and comets that intrigues you? They seem to play a very large part in the mythology of the book

DB: They’ve fascinated me since I was thirteen. I remember watching—there are certain dates, in August for example—when you know exactly where to look [for meteors]. I think what's fascinating about meteors isn't the apocalyptic side of it. Yes, they can hit the Earth and annihilate us all, but the most fascinating thing for me is the fact that they come from a very distant place. They go all the way to the sun; they appear and disappear in a cycle—there's a stableness to it. Some of them go millions of kilometers but they still come back. Writing is sort of like that. You strive to reach a certain point and then you get close to the sun and you publish the book but you always have to come back to the outer realms of the solar system, where it's much darker, before you can come back again. They're very strange creatures, comets.

When you're writing, this otherworldly object becomes part of the soil of this earth, and this connection, when it happens in literature, when you succeed in connecting very faraway things, whether they are people, or cultures or whether they are outer-stellar objects—maybe that's something that can start with writing. Again, most of the time you're talking about just two different people falling in love in the same city. But a man and woman falling in love in New York City are no more or less distant from one another than a comet and the earth. I'm not talking about kilometers here.

RK: In the book you talk about how, if we were to look at the facts, at any moment there could be a shower of radiation that suddenly reaches us and annihilates us all.  And if we took this larger view there’s a lot we wouldn’t do—smoke, pollute—but a lot of these things still happen. And this is reflected in the story, too: there's all this activity in the atmosphere and then life continues, unaware, on the ground.

DB: I agree. It doesn't mean that you live in fear or that you can't go out the door because you say, "God, think of all the trilobites and dinosaur bones around this city,” but it quietly forms part of your day-to-day life. You can walk around New York and look at limestone buildings and see tiny shells, millions of years old, in their walls. It gives a different aura to existence. You still live in the building, you still walk down the street, you go about your daily life, but there's a different light on the stage of everyday life. I’ve found that this is the type of light that forms poetry and literature. It doesn't alter anything else, and you can’t do anything with it, but that's a lot. It gives you a wider perspective, and as a human being, if there is another perspective about existence, I want to have it, to get it, to use it.

RK: You talk about proof and documentation a lot in the book, and how, if you were to collect all the objective proof for a book or a memory, you’d end up with no more than a matchbox’s worth—how do you contend with that? 

DB: If you think about memory as fossil collecting, you will find pretty soon that you can only ever have a very small collection. When I try to focus on certain memories, which I think I remember quite clearly, I see how they fade away immediately. So the materials that you can catch, this nest of memories, are very sparse really. If the tree is the whole of existence, what's left to you is much less than that—only a branch, or some fruits. Unless you have a very good memory—and I'm only talking about my own experience—you have to fill in the gaps by fiction, and invention.  If I had to write my true memories, I could maybe fill two or three pages at the most. And it's not just a matter of the number of pages, it's a matter of the importance of things, and there are really so few things we can take with us from the past. But that's OK, because literature can recreate some of those materials and make this tree grow again, although it's not realistic. But then, I don't think that’s the most important thing.

RK: Does the idea of a universal language appeal to you? There’s a section in the book where you invoke something of the sort—"The word that can be heard in the stars and whispered straight into the microscope."

DB: I think what human consciousness can do, and maybe specific literature, too, is connect far-off worlds. It's easy to think about it on the human or social level. You write a book about this person and that person and they meet in this café and you have a connection between them; they were strangers, and in the book you have them together, you have them meet. I try to extend this basic principle of literature. Two days ago I was walking in Central Park, waiting for the Metropolitan Museum to open. I was listening to Bach's Goldberg Variations. The absolute opposite of this guy [points over shoulder at Wagner] on my earphones. There are some amazing trees in the park which we don't have in Israel. I looked at one of them—I don't know what it was—and suddenly I felt a connection between the music and the tree. I don't know how to explain it; it was like the music was written for this specific tree. And it's not a mystical idea—there are many connections between the way the music progresses and the tree grows. The music of Bach—the music in my iPod—cannot know about the existence of this tree and the tree, naturally, can’t either. But you can be there for both of them and make them part of a whole. How easy it is to transform your way of life. You just put on your earphones and walk down the street and everything is transformed. Well, not everything, but a lot of things. Some things don't improve with music.

RK: I was just about to ask you if you'd extend that metaphor to literature. You quote the pianist Brad Mehldau as saying, "Music sings an elegy to itself." Do you feel like literature does something similar?

DB: Not all literature, of course, but literature that speaks to me. I don't think Wagner does that. He does it on a certain level because he writes quite good music, so in that sense, yes. I think you can generalize that there are two kinds of literature. One, which I like less, is literature that avoids this transient aspect of life, like these Wagnerian myths, about eternity, and halls of Gods, halls of fame, Valhalla. Fine—if you think that way go ahead.  But for me the most sophisticated and moving literature is Japanese haiku poetry, which encapsulates this notion of transience in the best form, because the poems themselves are transient. You start reading and they disappear immediately. I find it to be truer to existence. That's what I want to do eventually, become a haiku poet—and in the meantime I write prose. But even when I write prose, I try not to forget this lesson from haiku. This explains the fragmentary nature of the prose I write, and the blank spaces between the pieces. If you write a block of text, or those big novels, you pretend that existence can be continuous, but existence, to me, is very fragmentary and I try to mirror that structure in my writing. I can't write any other way.

RK: Any final words on Netanya?

DB: Maybe I can just say that it's a small town between Tel Aviv and Haifa and nobody knows anything about it. I don't know if there's any equivalent in the United States. Maybe—there is one thing: the name of the city. The name Netanya in Hebrew is composed of two words. Now nobody thinks about that in day-to-day life. It's just a name, like New York or Boston or whatever, but the name Natan just means "gave," and "ya" is Jehovah, so Netanya actually means God-given, or "God has given" or something like that. But nobody thinks about that. It's like nobody stops to think that New York is the new city of York, or that Philadelphia is the name of a . . . Greek town I think. Just like you don't think of your name as the name of a horse rider from The Lord of the Rings, it's just your name, that's all! The meaning of my name is “sparrow”—

RK: Which you mention in the book

DB: And I just gave a piece of banana to a sparrow in Central Park before we met.

RK: Must have been fellow feeling.

DB: Sure! Could be.

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