Synopses & Reviews
Winner of the 2011 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Crime Novel
In Middle East lore the Debba is a mythical Arab hyena that can turn into a man who lures Jewish children away from their families to teach them the language of the beasts. To the Arabs he is a heroic national symbol; to the Jews he is a terrorist. To David Starkman, “The Debba” is a controversial play, written by his father the war hero, and performed only once, in Haifa in 1946, causing a massive riot. By 1977, David is living in Canada, having renounced his Israeli citizenship and withdrawn from his family, haunted by persistent nightmares about his catastrophic turn as a military assassin for Israel. Upon learning of his father’s gruesome murder, he returns to his homeland for what he hopes will be the final time. Back in Israel, David discovers that his father's will demands he stage the play within forty-five days of his death, and though he is reluctant to comply, the authorities’ evident relief at his refusal convinces him he must persevere. With his father’s legacy on the line, David is forced to reimmerse himself in a life he thought he’d escaped for good.The heart-stopping climax shows that nothing in Israel is as it appears, and not only are the sins of the fathers revisited upon the sons, but so are their virtues—and the latter are more terrible still. Disguised as a breathtaking thriller, Avner Mandelman’s novel reveals Israel’s double soul, its inherent paradoxes, and its taste for both art and violence. The riddle of the Debba—the myth, the play, and the novel— is nothing less than the tangled riddle of Israel itself.
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. (July) " Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved."
About the Author
Avner Mandelman was born in Israel and served in the Israeli Air Force during the Six-Day War. Two of his story collections have been published in Canada, and the story collection Talking to the Enemy was published in the U.S. and chosen by Kirkus as one of the twenty-five best books of 2005, and by the ALA as the first recipient of the Sophie Brody Medal for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature. Several of his stories have won awards in the U.S., Canada, and Israel, including being selected for the Pushcart Prize, and the Journey Prize. His short story, “Pity,” was selected for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 1995. This is his first novel.
Reading Group Guide
1. How powerful are David's black dreams? Trace the various moments throughout the novel where they become more or less powerful. Do you think he can ever be completely rid of them?
2. What was Isser's motivation for writing "The Debba"? Why do you think he insisted David produce the play so soon after his death--especially when he himself witnessed the conflict it could bring?
3. Discuss David's attraction to Ruthy versus his attraction to Jenny. What about each woman captivates or distracts him? What do you think brings David and Ruthy back together? What does each woman see in David?
4. Discuss Isser's friendships with both Paltiel and Abdullah. How did the relationships evolve from his military days to his death? Do you see any similarities in David and Ehud's relationship?
5. Why is David considered such a threat, so dangerous they send assassins after him? Are they afraid of him or the play? Where does David find the determination to overcome the obstacles he encounters?
6. Discuss family loyalty in The Debba. Does it differ between the Jewish and Arab families we meet?
7. The Debba is steeped in mystery--of both the past and the present. From the myth of the Debba to the circumstances surrounding Isser's death, discuss the power these secrets have over the characters.
8. Where--and among whom--does David feel most at ease? Does he fit in anywhere? Will he ever be able to escape his past?
9. Has this fictional account influenced your knowledge or feelings about Israel's history or current situation?
10. What is Abdullah's ultimate motive for helping David stage the play?
11. How does the revelation of David's true father influence David's feelings about where he fits in the Israeli community? Did your opinion of David's character change when you learned the truth? Were you surprised?
12. What was your opinion of Isser's play, "The Debba"? Discuss the play's supporters and protesters and the intensity of their opinions.
13. Of all the characters seeking vengeance in The Debba, do any of them attain it?