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The Debba Paperback – July 13, 2010

4.2 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Necessary Evil and Necessary Hypocrisy: An Essay by Avner Mandelman

Necessary evil is a cost of civilized life. This is a theme that runs through much of my work, since all societies have dirty jobs that must be done, if society is to survive. But what if some truly necessary jobs--secret assassinations, blackmailing of spies’ kin, physical interrogations--are also immoral? So immoral that society cannot acknowledge their existence even to itself? Who shall do those jobs, and what should happen to the doers? This is one of the most incendiary topics an author can choose, because it forces his readers to confront their own hypocrisy. It’s also the topic John le Carré embraced.

I still remember the electric shock I felt as I encountered George Smiley for the first time, when I was still living in Israel in the 1960s. Here, finally, was reality as I witnessed it daily, both in war and in life constantly shadowed by war. No other words I’d read spoke of this terrible dilemma more eloquently and disturbingly. It was the part of life essentially unfit for print. Because I had met many Smileys, I instantly knew that this is what I had always wanted to write about but never knew it was allowed. Le Carré, however, did not shy away from the question of necessary evil, and his novels thereby transcend genre spy fiction. He succeeds, I believe, because of two virtues: First, of course, is his immense talent. But second, and not least, is his enormous sympathy both for his protagonist and for the reader.

In le Carré novels, George Smiley and his ilk are those who do the morally dirty jobs on which we all depend. From Smiley’s first appearance in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, le Carré shows, often to the reader’s discomfort, that the rest of us can afford our clean consciences only because such fallen pragmatists are ready to sacrifice their own. And this is precisely why, after the fallen have committed their immoral deeds, they must by necessity be publicly punished for them: so the rest of us can truthfully insist we would never have condoned such things. And this, in a nutshell, is the moral dilemma of modern times. Whereas warriors of old have been called to sacrifice their lives, modern warriors, besides being asked to risk death, are also asked to sacrifice their sanity and even their honor. But unlike their old-time brethren, modern warriors must sacrifice their all without even the comfort that public recognition can provide.

This, to me, is the essence of le Carré's Smiley, a modern shadow warrior "possessing the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin" (A Murder of Quality). He sees reality cold and clear, and stands ready to do what must be done--and be pilloried for it--while others around him conveniently pretend it’s not necessary at all. He is a new type of modern tragic hero, whose essential tragedy lies in the fact that his soul-destroying acts cannot even be recognized, or told. But because le Carré did tell, then so, by and by, could I.


From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Sharp, biting prose distinguishes this first novel from Israeli author Mandelman (Talking to the Enemy, a story collection). In 1977, David Starkman returns from selfimposed exile in Canada to his native Israel after learning of the murder of his warhero father, Isser, the owner of a shoe shore. The killer stabbed Isser in the heart with one of Isser's own knives, then mutilated his body. Isser's will includes an unusual provision--that within 45 days, a controversial play he'd written, The Debba, whose title refers to "an enigmatic Arab hyena that can walk like a man" and which had only been performed once, three decades earlier, be staged. David, who once belonged to an elite Israeli army unit responsible for carrying out targeted assassinations in "times of non-war," decides to stick around to fulfill his father's request, despite opposition from those who believe the play is subversive. The author deftly blends a murder mystery with a nuanced examination of the intransigent Israeli-Arab conflict.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 358 pages
  • Publisher: Other Press; 1 edition (July 13, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590513703
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590513705
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,600,799 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This book should come with a publisher's warning to readers not to start reading it on a workday. In the absence of such a warning, I started reading it on a workday and got nothing done till I finished it the next day. It is a difficult book to classify: if you like thrillers and action, there are enough surprises here for three good books in this genre. As a historical novel based on the Israeli-Arab conflict it is meticulously accurate, down to the last custom and slang word. I have some ability to judge that, as I share some experiences with the protagonist, David: I also moved from Israel to Canada after my army service (but unfortunately no experience with Shikses). I do agree with one of the reviewers that some background on the events serving as a backdrop is helpful and maybe should be added as an appendix to future editions, for those too lazy to Google it. I have no ability to judge if not knowing the background detracts from the enjoyment of reading this book. As a story about love and friendship it stands on its own, even if you're lucky enough not to know where the middle east is. One interesting aspect of the book is that it is not only a "story within the story", the similarity between the play "The Debba" David is staging and his real life, but the author will find himself as unpopular with the same nationalistic circles as David did in the play.
I'll terminate the review now as I feel that the book is more interesting than anything I can write about it.
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Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
While I would not go so far as the back-of-the-book blurb that calls this novel a "thriller," I will say that it is a lyrical, compelling political murder mystery that I enjoyed very much. My one-sentence plot summary would be: a former Israeli assassin returns home to bury his father and, in the process, uncovers a number of dark secrets about his family's past. I knew absolutely nothing about the historical background of this novel, which takes place in the late 1970s. Thus, at times I got confused or surfed the Net for a little history primer before continuing. This helped me enjoy the book even more, and I would recommend that anyone not familiar with the details of the Israel-Palestine conflict, particularly post-WW II, read up a little on the subject if s/he wants to get the most out of this well-written novel. Recommended, with appropriate background.
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Format: Paperback
What an absorbing and provocative novel this is! THE DEBBA hooked me right away with its hard-hitting urgency; the more I read the more intense it became. I was gripped by not only the plot's intrigue and ingenious intricacies, but its underlying passion and power. I found it to be a unique reading experience; it reminded me of a mirrored top, spinning faster and faster, with its whirling reflections and dazzling correspondences. The conclusion is stunning.

Although it is a real page-turner, this is not your ordinary thriller; it is as thought-provoking as it is gripping, and it should engender lively discussion at reading groups. I can't think of anything that better captures the tragedy and insanity of the mid-East situation and its blood-deep enmity. Unforgettable.
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Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I selected the Debba because I was intrigued by the name and by the author's earlier kudos for writing "Talking to the Enemy" (one of Kirkus Reviews' top twenty -five best books of 2005). Not being Jewish, I'm sure that I am missing some of the meaning in this book, but even without that familiarity and heritage, this is a fascinating work. The story is slowly peeled back and the characters are allowed to develop using flashbacks. It is a tale about a Jewish family that was heavily involved in Israel's armed forces. But before anyone is turned off by that sentence, the involvement was extremely complicated and that becomes the story.

David Starkman begins this story in Canada receiving a call from Israel that his father was murdered. He left Israel on terms that will be defined later in the story, but he is now a Canadian citizen. He hadn't spoken to his father in seven years; cutting all ties to his homeland for reasons yet unannounced. David immediately travels to Tel Aviv to attend the funeral and Shivah. He then has a meeting with his father's attorney and receives mysterious news that his father wanted him to put on a play, called The Debba in order to obtain the $65,000 that is his legacy. But there are others that do not want this play to be performed. And so begins the real plot of the underlying issues that have been nagging at David for the last seven years.

Jew and Arabs have been living together peacefully, and without peace for many years. I am not a student of this history, but the power of The Debba is the complexity that is portrayed in this story. This is a story about three old friends, about a young man trying to expunge dark ghosts of his own past, of many long time countrymen helping when possible and not when directed.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
As an American Jew and both secular and far more progressive than the self-appointed leadership of the U.S. Jewish community, I've often wondered how the current intractable standoff between Israelis and Palestinians came about. "It's obvious, you'll say. "Jewish immigrants from Europe settled on Palestinian land," and of course that's true. But doesn't it seem unlikely that every Israeli became an Arab-hater shortly after arriving, and every Arab a Jew-hater just as quickly? Weren't there those on both sides who opposed the fighting and worked for reconciliation through the years of Israel's "pre-history" (before 1948) and in the decades since? Surely, the latter-day Peace Now movement had its precursors in an earlier time.

The Debba, though framed as a murder mystery (and an excellent one at that), is a serious fictional inquiry into this question. In the view of its author, Avner Mandelman, it's also an examination of "necessary evil," the maniuplations and assassinations and kidnappings that governments carry out in the name of national security. Mandelman, a short-story writer who divides his time among Canada, California, and Paris, was born in Israel and served in the Israeli Air Force in the 1967 Six Days' War that established the boundaries within which Israel allegedly lives today. He is well qualified to explore both questions.

Mandelman's protagonist, David Starkman, a naturalized Canadian citizen, was a trained killer for the Israeli armed forces who carried out black missions in Arab capitals in the 1960s. When he learns of his father's murder in Tel Aviv, Starkman is suddenly pulled back into the ethically murky environment he had fled seven years earlier.
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