The Author Who Ran Over His Critic


“Bite of Scorpion”, de Nina Tokhtaman Valetova, Wikiart © Nina Tokhtaman Valetova © Fair Use


First he heard a thud. Then he felt a dull blow and the handlebars crumpled into his ribs. He knew he’d hit someone—a male, fair-skinned, slightly curly-haired pedestrian. But he had absolutely no idea that the person he’d hit was a literary critic. He’d had the opportunity to run over all sorts of people with his electric bike on the sidewalks of Tel Aviv, but never a literary critic.

The story in one of the online news sites the next day read: “Author on e-bike hit’s literary critic who panned his book.” Upon reading this headline, he could feel the handlebars digging into his ribs again, as if he, Elam Halbertal, was responsible for this punctuation error.

When the critic got up from the sidewalk, he could already imagine the mockery. His injured pride was far more painful than his physical injuries, which amounted to a few bruises, a swollen eye, and one chipped tooth. There was also a dull pain in his testicles, which worsened over the course of the evening.

 “He survived by the skin of his teeth,” they joked on social media, and then the floodgates opened. What didn’t they say! First they quoted the victim’s review of the perpetrator’s most recent book, in which they found quite a few prescient signs. Elam Halbertal’s book was named Submission (it had been published days before Michel Houellebecq’s Submission came out in France—the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack), and the review discussed Halbertal’s submission to his own persona. “He expresses true contempt,” wrote the critic, “for authors who write about their private lives, who turn life’s materials into writing materials. That is the power of his writing, though also the source of its weakness.”

The social networks were also up in arms about the offender being the Ashkenazi grandson of Holocaust survivors, while the victim was from a Moroccan family (his grandfather had been a close advisor, confidant and personal letter-writer to the King of Morocco). Moreover, when the critic was run over he happened to be on his way to eat humus with his boyfriend. The police spokesperson soon announced that they were “looking into hate crime charges.” Things got even stickier when someone unearthed a Facebook post from only a few months prior, in which the author had classified different species of literary critics. Among others, he had identified ‘the turncoat critic,’ ‘the nefarious critic,’ ‘the innocent critic,’ ‘the fawning critic,’ ‘the bellwether critic,’ and last but not least—‘the scorpion critic.’ Furthermore, he had insinuated that his future-casualty was a specimen of the latter genus: “The scorpion critic actually enjoys your book very much, and provides numerous examples to prove it. Nevertheless, his review is suffused with a toxic, acerbic tone. He can’t help it: it’s in his nature.”

The next day, things got even messier. The police confiscated the author’s computer, where they found a work in progress titled, “The Author Who Ran Over His Critic.” When questioned, he invoked the writer’s imaginative craft and duty to use metaphors and hyperbole, and offered evidence of his innocence by referring to the victim’s own review, in which he had written—as clear as day—that “Halbertal has true contempt for authors who write about their private lives, who turn life’s materials into writing materials. That is the power of his writing, though also the source of its weakness.” The author thereby proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, and by relying upon the victim’s own words, that not only could he not have planned or predicted the unfortunate incident, but quite the opposite: he had always, as a matter of principle, avoided writing about his private life, both past, and—quite definitively—future.

The literary critic’s testicular pain continued to worsen overnight, and by morning his scrotum was so swollen that he went to see a urologist. The urologist, a recent French immigrant, wore a gold chain with a Star of David pendant hanging between her breasts. She instructed the patient to lie on the examination table and pull down his trousers and underwear. She then felt around his testicles with her eyes closed, lost in thought. She told him to turn over onto his side, dipped her thumb in a large jar of Vaseline, and proceeded to part his rear-end and rummage. What didn’t she find in there! Hills and valleys, everything the critic hid from his readers, his deepest secrets.

 “Everything is fine,” she finally proclaimed and pulled out her thumb. But when the literary critic sat up and began dressing, she was astonished to see a small, black scorpion slither out from between his buttocks and mince across the table towards the open window. For these were the early days of spring, when a brilliant perfume of fresh blooms invades one’s nostrils and one senses a great urge to relieve oneself of the passion burning in one’s loins.

Moshe Sakal

Translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen


Moshe Sakal was born in Tel-Aviv and lived in Paris in his twenties. He is the author of six Hebrew novels. Sakal’s novel THE DIAMOND SETTER was translated into English by Jessica Cohen (Other Press) and his novel YOLANDA was translated into French by Valérie Zenatti (Stock). Sakal was nominated twice for the Sapir Prize, and was awarded the Eshkol Prize for his work, and a Fulbright grant for participating in the International Writing Program in Iowa, USA.
Since 2019 he has been living in Berlin and working on his new novel, funded by the Berlin Senate Department for Culture and Europe.

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