Sayed Kashua’s Exposure is one of the more conventional novels on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long list, marketed, from the change of title onwards (the US version was called Second Person Singular) as a thriller. It would be a mistake, however, to think that Kashau is not asking some perceptive and difficult questions in his novel, in particular questions about cultural identity. Kashua is an Israeli Arab, and the contradictions already apparent in this label are explored in the novel.
The protagonist of the novel’s first part is a successful Israeli Arab lawyer. His origins bring with them certain insecurities:
“The Arabs’ cars were expensive and German, with massive engines under the gleaming hoods and dashboards full of accessories; many of them were luxury SUVs. Not that the parents of the Jewish kids earned less…but as opposed to the Arab parents, the Jewish parents were not in competition, none of them felt they had to prove their success to their peers.”
Everything changes when he finds a note in his wife’s hand writing in a second hand book which he buys:
“I waited for you but you didn’t come. I hope everything’s all right wanted to thank you for last night. It was wonderful. Call me tomorrow?”
His reaction perhaps also reflects a lingering insecurity. He is instantly jealous, believing is wife must be having, or have had, an affair. Previously considering himself to be fairly liberal minded (for example he had always thought it would have been unconcerned if his wife had not been a virgin when they married) he discovers that ancestral feelings are not hidden that far beneath the surface:
“He’d stab the bitch, cut her throat, gouge out her eyes, butcher he body.”
Of course anyone can have such thoughts when enraged, though in this case he is supported by a cultural tradition that associates infidelity with death, as we see when he later more coolly considers who should kill her.
The novel, however, is not about whether or not the lawyer kills or even divorces his wife. In part two, we learn the story of the note, and the Yonatan whose book it was found in. From that point on the novel moves in two directions: the lawyer attempts to hunt down Yonatan and discover the truth behind the note, while we learn, from the opposite direction, who Yonatan is and where the note came from.
It would spoil the novel a little to say too much about this, but part of the story involves a young Arab taking on the identity of a Jew. This allows Kashua to both highlight how superficial the difference are while at the same time exploring the differences that this identity makes. He begins with a simple example: as an Arab he can only get work in the kitchens of a restaurant; as a Jew he can be a waiter.
This novel struck me as a fascinating and accessible way of exploring the issues of Israel and Palestine by an author who clearly knows the complexity of the situation well yet doesn’t overload the reader with detail and focuses everything around his characters. Kashua even manages to come up with a twist at the end. A good rather than a great novel, it may not make it onto the short list, but I certainly found it worth reading.