“Anyone who has never lived on a kibbutz doesn’t understand the first thing about it,” one of the characters warns the lead detective in the delightful mystery novel Murder on a Kibbutz, by the late Batya Gur. “It’s impossible to understand from the outside and this whole investigation of yours is pointless. You’re wasting your time.”
Michael Ohayon, the Moroccan-born and Jerusalem-based investigator in Gur’s popular series, has little experience of the closed society of the Israeli kibbutz. But that doesn’t stop him from infiltrating ever deeper into the complex relationships and hidden divisions of this particular community to solve the enigma of how and why one of its most influential members had died.
I’ve meant to read this novel for more than a year now, and now that I have (thanks to Ranen Omer-Sherman, for the final push to move it up on my to-read list), I can whole-heartedly recommend the book to anyone interested in a lively (if somewhat pessimistic) overview of kibbutz life in the early 90s or even just an absorbing summer read. I’m not a mystery buff by nature, but the quality of the writing (Gur taught Hebrew literature and wrote for Haaretz before her untimely death from cancer) and the psychological nuances of its moody hero (a charismatic, driven loner with an existential streak) add up to a page-turner whose narrative engine is as much its vivid, feuding characters as its well-wrought plot.
And while I don’t believe she was ever a member, Gur also understood the kibbutz at a more than superficial level; her novel, published in Hebrew in 1991, seems prescient in its anticipations of the challenges that would transform the movement over the next two decades. The fictitious commune, located in the northern Negev, is shocked when the sudden death of a widowed kibbutz leader turns out to be a suspected homicide. But then possible motives start emerging, along with other secrets, from beneath the surface solidarity of the seemingly peaceful kibbutz: political, ideological, financial, psychological, romantic. I won’t spoil the ending, but there are enough twists and red herrings to satisfy any reader.
Gur’s imaginary kibbutz also seemed, in many ways, a lot like Kibbutz Shamir when I lived there. (Except for the murder, of course.) Like Shamir, it belongs to the more left-of-centre Artzi Federation (the Givat Haviva educational seminar gets mentioned several times); it is relatively prosperous, as the kibbutz managed to largely avoid (apparently) the devastating financial crisis and grey-market borrowing fiascos of the late 80s; it also developed a profitable factory (like Shamir’s optical plant) that produces cosmetics from cactus plants. Gur wrote the novel and set its action amid the rising tension and violence of the First Intifada (which began in 1988, the year I arrived at Shamir). In the book, the kibbutz’s leaders are debating proposed changes that will unsettle their traditional and ideologically pure way of life: the use of hired outside workers; building an off-site retirement home in tandem with other kibbutzim; and, most controversially, letting kibbutz children live and sleep with their parents rather than in the communal children’s houses. (Characters acknowledge that they are one of the last hold-outs to consider this shift.) There is even a minor character (who plays a major role in the plot), described as an eccentric bachelor, known as “Dave the Canadian”!
I admit I paused when I read the line that, for someone exploring the social dynamics of a kibbutz, it’s “impossible to understand from the outside” and had to wonder if my whole book project isn’t “pointless” too. But then again, I think I have a bit of the dogged curiosity of Michael Ohayon, the perpetual outsider who nevertheless insinuates his way toward the truth, by whatever means necessary. A detective and a writer, especially a nonfiction author, share a few things in common perhaps.