A Race to Understand a Troubled Place: Michael Lavigne's The Wanting

Alex Rieser

The Wanting CoverThe Wanting is a race to understand a troubled country, a place that many call home. With The Wanting, Michael Lavigne takes us through Communist Russia and the streets of Moscow to Israel during the 1994 intifada before the Lebanon war. Lavigne defines the boundaries of what fiction is capable of in this novel, meticulously weaving together three disparate lives to show the way that want binds us.

At times, readers aren’t aware that they’re in a novel. Roman, an emigrant living in Israel, is caught up with being a single father and running a small architectural firm. His Russian background is so well delivered that it reads with the poignancy and detail of Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. In Israel, Roman’s thrashed body is moved from the site of an attack to an ambulance to the hospital and then, finally, back to the house that his thirteen year old daughter has kept up in his absence. Roman is haunted by a gruesome image in his last moment before a bomb thrusts him off of his drafting chair and sends shards of glass into his head:

Looking up at the overhang of glass, I almost thought I was standing behind a waterfall, and the thunder I was feeling was the water careening down the cliff face. But I understood this was an illusion. I was on the floor and a bomb had just gone off. And the object flying past my window? It probably had been the head of the bomber, winking at me. (2-3)

He has actually seen the bomber's head careening away from the bus stop where the bomb has gone off—an image that haunts Roman for the rest of the novel. In fact, it’s the only physical appearance that the novel’s second main character will have: Amir, a young awkward Palestinian boy, hardened by the things he’s seen in his life, detonates a bomb below Roman’s office.

Then there are the times that readers are painstakingly aware that they are reading a novel. One such ‘novel’ moment is the abrupt transition from Roman to the eyes of the bomber himself at the last moment before the bomber blows up a suit of C-4 strapped to his chest, along with a bus full of citizens, and a good portion of a surrounding street corner. With every character’s story being told in the first person and every shift in point of view being made without overt disclosure to the reader, Lavigne has had to make himself a master of voice to pull it all off. In such a story as this, where characters appear at first glance to be polar opposites -- a cluttered, distant, self-involved father and a young, busy, world-weary daughter, a Palestinian suicide bomber and the Jew that he's bombed -- Lavigne takes on the perilous task of weaving their stories together in a way that confuses their struggles and wants. Never as a reader have I been more aware of the way that struggle blurs the lines of individuality. Being caught up in something bigger than yourself requires that you give a bit of the self away in order to align with a political party, a religion, a movement, revolution, or an act of violence.

Anna, Roman’s daughter, a young Israeli student, and lover of Japanese manga, appears unassuming and matter-of-fact. She is frighteningly unshaken by her father’s brush with death, the attack that has occurred so close to her home and has affected her father so deeply. Anna will become the bridge that links Roman to Amir. Although Anna and her father will not be together again in the same room until the final chapters of the novel, we see her first through Roman’s eyes as he wakes in the hospital after the attack:

Anna, whom I call Anyusha—a name I made up one day, although sometimes I call her Anya, Anyula, Anechka, Anyuta, or Anka depending on my mood—was only thirteen at the time. She set her comic book on the chair and moved closer to me. She was staring at my face with what I thought was morbid curiosity. (6)

Morbid curiosity becomes the lens through which readers experience Anna, whereas Roman and Amir will retell their stories directly to readers: Roman's as it is happening and Amir's as a summary of past events. Anna's portion of the tale is told through diary entries found by Roman after Anna herself turns to violence.

Shifts in speaker are denoted by the symbol in which their history and origin is aligned. Present-day Roman -- or the Roman who is speaking after the bomb goes off -- is denoted by the Star of David. When he is younger, telling us about his time in Russia and how he came to Israel (that also includes the unexpected origin story of another of the novel’s characters) is denoted by the Hammer and Sickle of the USSR. Anna's is the Yin-Yang, which expresses her love of manga and also, appropriately, how she contains a little of both Amir and Roman. The first time that readers see Amir’s symbol, they aren’t given a warning that the shift is about to occur. This abrupt change can hit you in the face. However, Amir’s story begins in a humble way, with him being described as a mouse afraid that a hawk might snatch him. How could this child, shaky on his feet, unsure of anything, come to perform such a permanent act? Amir looks up to his older cousin, Fadi—a charismatic, politically idealistic boy, with a business sense and the street smarts to back it up—who seems far more capable than Amir. Amir’s coming-of-age is closely linked to two run-ins with Israeli soldiers. The first leaves him embarrassed and resentful; the second causes far more harm when his older cousin’s life comes into danger.

It is through Anna that readers will understand Amir’s motives and transition from frightened boy to suicide-bomber, holding in one hand his Qur’an and an AK-47 in the other. Months pass after the bombing and, while Roman is off trying to find the father of his would-be-killer to satisfy some strange curiosity, Anna is attracted to a group of Israeli’s who might coerce her into more than just memorizing passages from the Talmud.

Roman: the architect who has had to flee Russia for Israel. Amir: the young boy and would-be terrorist who’s watched his country be taken away from him. Anna: the young Israeli daughter who is struggling to grow and to find her place in a country during such a time. It is their broadly opposing characteristics that separate them, but they are aligned most expertly by their want. But the cost of that want is high. Who can make it in a world where survival is not the final goal, but understanding is?


The Wanting
Michael Lavigne
Schocken First Edition edition, 2013
ISBN: 978-0805212556

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