As much a book of poetry as a novel, as much a symphony as a memoir, this is an extraordinary book from a writer at the top of his powers. Reminiscent of Berger and Calvino, Jeff Talarigo manages to capture the breadth and circumference of story-telling, while also giving us a privileged insight into the daily life and dreams of Gaza.
Thanks be to Jeff Talarigo for his immense humanity, his literary gift for imaginative presence and witness, his absorption, creation and weaving of pungent stories which make Palestine/Gaza feel as haunting and real as they truly are. Here we feel, in potent, amplified form, the sorrowing presences of our extended human families who suffered outrageous injustice for whole generations, and it still goes on. Jeff is a crucial witness: what he does in this exquisite, mysterious text is make a whole world come alive.
Jeff Talarigo's storyteller prefaces his stories with a warning: "We are all exaggerators of the truth, stretchers of stories, sometimes outright liars even. But our exaggerations, our stretches, our lies, are ours and that is why we must believe them, for they are the only things we can call our own." In the Cemetery of the Orange Trees is a collection of such stories of decades of strife and life in the Gaza region. The stories are told in the manner of Aesop or Orwell, allegorically and mythologically familiar, but in Talarigo's prose they soar. Violence, inhumanity and sadness are challenged by hope, forgiveness, appreciation, loyalty, and rebellion. And we must believe them.
What Jeff Talarigo has accomplished here is quite remarkable. In the Cemetery of the Orange Trees captures with poignancy and precision the harrowing effect of the Occupation on the lives of those who endure it. In the terms of the novel itself, I would rate this a 'five cigarette' story.
Talarigo, a peripatetic global citizen whose spare, exquisite fiction also tends toward the international—Japan for The Pearl Diver (2004), the North Korean and Chinese border for The Ginseng Hunter (2008)—alchemizes his time in Gaza into this affecting novel in loosely linked stories. An unnamed American finds himself welcomed into a local’s home in Jabaliya, the Gaza Strip’s largest refugee camp: “I trust your eyes,” Fayez explains as they walk down the aptly named School Street. Thus begins the American’s education in the occupied Palestinian experience, through history, memories, myths, and parables. As children learn, “It is in the cemetery of the orange trees that we keep alive our story.” So, too, the American absorbs the tales of a man whose wife births a goat; a fratricidal hawk; a fatherless boy obsessed with photographs of the dead; a book-ingesting man; and a birthday boy’s encounter with a young lion, the Gaza Zoo’s animals, and the single veterinarian who cares for them. “There is so much the American does not know,” Talarigo presses, adding further urgency with stinging, ruthless lessons—ironically, so gorgeously rendered—that deserve immediate empathic attention. — Terry Hong
Talarigo is back in a big way. (Talarigo isn't) running from Gaza, he is running to it.