A spare and perfectly painful little book, Oz Shelach’s Picnic Grounds sketches an Israel that you won’t see on the news. There are no tanks or bulldozers here, no burning school buses—not, at least, in the foreground. With ruthless precision, Shelach’s novel plots the terrain of complicity, denial, and shared, unspoken culpability that Israel has crafted for itself over the last half-century. A chain of largely unconnected fragmentary chapters, most of them just single, short paragraphs (“Long orderly texts belong in the 19th-century shelves,” a professor tells his students. “Today, there are only short stories”), Picnic Grounds is justifiably suspicious of the snug pleasures of narrative. In its title chapter, a historian and his family relax in the shade of a pine forest where until 1948 an Arab village stood. He does not mention the past, imagining “that he and his family were having a picnic, unrelated to the village, enjoying its grounds outside history.”
If individual Palestinians rarely appear in the novel, they are everywhere present: in the gunshots just audible in a university classroom as a professor lectures on grammar while somewhere out the window “our soldiers were mowing down protesters”; in the “unsettling voices” that drift up into a bar from interrogation rooms far beneath a neighboring police station; even in the ubiquitous pine trees planted around Jerusalem, their needles hiding the remnants of razed villages. Everywhere are the “ghosts that haunt the soil, which is soaked with blood, where vines stretch out over ruins and persist like the claims—big sweet green grapes, rich in seeds, tall fig trees—of the farmers we drove away.”
Most of Picnic Grounds is narrated in a flat, unsentimental first person plural (“we thought” and “we loved” and “we lived”) as a sort of dispassionate memoir of collective consciousness, of common fear, ambivalence, and guilt. In one of the rare fragments in which Shelach lets his narrator speak in the singular, he confesses to having always been nostalgic, to longing for the past even as a small child. But the nostalgia he feels is not the one on which the state of Israel is based, the dream of a lost, idyllic homeland regained through common toil. Quite the opposite: “Having since boarded an airplane and left Israel full of bitter disillusionment and hope for the future, I now long for a time not very long ago, but which I have never known, before ever I existed, or, preferably, before we did.” It’s a credit to Shelach’s integrity that he doesn’t let himself find that comfort, even in the relative safety of fiction.