Very few novels offer the total immersion that the reader experiences with Zvi Jagendorf’s Coming Soon, set in a divided Jerusalem in 1961. You find yourself wandering the labyrinthine streets of the Old City, amongst “decaying facades of Ottoman mansions, barricaded convents and half-empty pilgrims’ hostels…” In this city, which “displays its wounds like dirty bandages on a beggar’s body”, lives Ada, the dollmaker, always dressed in black, and her motley crew of friends – an artist, an impresario, a theatre director, a monk, a nun, and a lawyer; Jews, Christians and atheists, people from all corners of the globe, each of whom has chosen to make Jerusalem their home.
They all live close to the border that separates the Old City into two: “the edge where one life came to an end at a STOP DANGER sign, and another life began right opposite as in a mirror…” Here, troubled by her own past, Ada contemplates the lives of those Arab families who once lived nearby, but have now gone, leaving only traces behind: broken flower pots, boxes of herbs, and hungry cats searching for their owners.
The Eichmann trial is imminent; the international press is gathering, and the world is watching with bated breath as one of the most senior architects of the Holocaust is about to be tried for genocide. But Milo Banet has other plans: to stage a devastating performance of Noah and the ark on Zion Square right outside the courtroom. Just when “everybody everywhere is watching the little Nazi in the dock and feeling good about justice and retribution and munching peanuts”, Milo and his actors will conjure up a colossal flood to end all floods. A catastrophe to remind the world that no one is safe; that the waters can rise again, and humanity will be swallowed in a single merciless gulp.
Though set in the early 1960s, it is clear that Jagendorf’s novel contains an ecocritical message for our times: centuries of war and bloodshed have made us forget our shared humanity, and more pressingly, our shared responsibility for the planet. The flood in Genesis engulfs everyone; only a handful are saved. When Milo’s friends accuse him of belittling the trial, he replies: “The Nazi is our obsession, you can see that… Nothing else except us and him… It’s driving us crazy and we can help balance things with this play. It’s also about a disaster but it’s not about us… it’s about everybody, Jews, Arabs, Christians, Mongols, Eskimos, Japs.”
The environmental slant is also striking because it is a topic that is rarely broached in Israeli fiction. Contemporary Israeli fiction deals with a multitude of themes and genres; yet, environmental novels, eco-thrillers, and general climate catastrophe narratives are few and far between. This makes Jagendorf’s perspective especially interesting. Born in Vienna in 1936, he grew up in London and has lived in Israel for most of his adult life. He wrote both this novel and his first, Wolfy and the Strudelbakers in English. The effect is wonderful and disorientating at the same time: a novel firmly rooted in Israel that touches on themes almost entirely absent in contemporary Hebrew fiction.
The title Coming Soon: The Flood deliberately blurs notions of spectacle and disaster; it could be a billboard poster for a new film, or a warning. Milo believes that theatre has the power to change lives; he wants his play to bring anger and panic to the streets of Jerusalem. He hopes to cause a riot. Milo’s passion is infectious; everyone around him is hypnotised by his vision of theatre and cruelty colliding. The reader won’t know if this vision is successful until the end of the novel, but it is testament to Jagendorf’s power of storytelling that we are held on the edge of our seats, waiting to find out.