A Love Story About Outsiders Set During Trump’s Presidency
"The Apartment on Calle Uruguay" by Zachary Lazar is about politics, religion, identity, and migration told through a distinctly Jewish lens
In the biblical Exodus story, before the enslaved Israelites escaped the Pharoah, Moses had his own personal exodus. After striking and killing a sadistic Egyptian slave driver, Moses, terrified, ran away, exiling himself to the desert. He struggled with his identity, feeling othered and alienated while away from home, so much so that he named his first son “Gershom”—a stranger in a strange land. It is Gershom who painter Christopher Bell declares himself to be at the beginning of Zachary Lazar’s new novel The Apartment on Calle Uruguay.
If anyone is to be a stranger, Christopher Bell is a compelling one. A brown-skinned American Jew and the child of Israeli immigrants, Christopher is difficult to categorize, so he confuses people—at one point he says he looks like Osama bin Laden. Like Moses and Gershom, Lazar’s characters are wandering, lost and looking for home in places ready to spit them back out. The Apartment on Calle Uruguay tells Bell’s story as he attempts to put his life back together, retreating from New York City to a quiet cottage near a pond after the death of his girlfriend Malika and his complete detachment from his painting career. “I had lost some part of myself a long time ago, even before Malika died”, Bell recounts to himself.
Lazar’s work is concerned with the reverberations of violence, from the immediate to what is passed down through generations. His last novel, Vengeance, blended genre in what he calls “fake nonfiction”—a journalist reporting at Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary befriends Kendrick King, an imprisoned man who claims he was coerced by police into falsely confessing to a murder.
The Apartment on Calle Uruguay is an American story told through a distinctly Jewish lens—Lazar is able to deftly weave religion, politics, and history to create a vivid portrait of immigrants and exiles building, moving, and grieving home amidst the turbulent Trump presidency. By connecting his novel to the biblical Exodus and the Israelites wandering through the desert, Lazar is able to tap into a lineage of exile and tenuous belonging. This confusion over where home is, it’s the central engine to Lazar’s writing.
Jonathan Dale: Your novel begins with the 2017 Charlottesville Unite the Right rally and Heather Heyer’s death. What about that event felt like the novel’s entry point for you?
Zachary Lazar: I wanted to write the novel in real time. So whatever was happening in the story had to correspond with whatever was happening in the news. I just was like, that’s where the first scene of the story starts. And this love story that I’m starting to tell has to be very much impacted by this story in the news, because both characters would be very preoccupied with it.
I knew that I wanted to write a love story, and I wanted it to have something to do with the border and people feeling like they wanted to leave the United States, but I’d planned that before Donald Trump was even elected. And once he was elected, I wasn’t going to do that. Because it sounded like it was too topical.
JD: When we meet Christopher, he is in a very low, anhedonic place. His girlfriend was killed in a car accident and he’s lost his artistic spark. He is an interesting protagonist to me because at the beginning, he seems defined by what he lacks—he’s grieving.
ZL: It’s challenging to have a character that starts at zero and to see what you can do to a story to bring him back. Revitalize him without it being sentimental without it being, you know, ridiculous or artificial.
William Blake talks about this cycle that we are always going through. Which starts with spring where you feel like you are very vital, and things are going well. And then you enter into the summer, and that’s life kind of going along. And then you start to get old, and then you go into this winter period that he called the “ulro”, where you’re disillusioned, and what you do is you turn in on yourself in this posture of self-regard and self-pity. And what I liked about it when I read this from some guy who’s writing in the 1700s, is that wow, okay, he felt like this was just sort of a cyclical thing that everybody goes through. Because it’s a kind of psychology that I can identify with, that’s how life has always felt to me. What you need to do when you’re in the ulro, this dark place, is to somehow summon up a new outburst of creativity, creative energy, even if that’s just being outraged. In the case of my book, I think it’s romantic love, he falls in love with this woman and doesn’t expect her to be there. Which sounds corny, but when you’re in that place, you don’t want to be out of that place. You want to stay in that place, because it’s stable. It’s kind of like a womb, he compares it to the womb. So it’s this kind of a comfort zone, it’s a way of being dead while you’re alive.
JD: I was very interested in Christopher, the protagonist, being a non-white Jewish Israeli-American. What led you to Christopher as a protagonist?
ZL: My work has always been about a kind of exile from some sort of home. Whether that’s literal or metaphorical. And I wanted this character to not be able to comfortably fit into any ethnic group. I wanted this person to be misperceived all the time. I have been in Israel enough to have a firsthand experience with the Jews from different parts of the world, which was something I didn’t know about either until I went to Israel. I mean, I knew about it, but I didn’t have a good grasp of how diverse the whole Jewish world is.
JD: I feel the same way— as an Ashkenazi Jew, my Jewish world has been very white. So to explore the multifaceted Jewish experience is cool, it changes your understanding of who you are.
ZL: Well, I think Ashkenazi Jews have been so assimilated into America now that it’s hard to write about Jews in the way that someone like Philip Roth or Saul Bellow was able to. I don’t think there’s enough of a distinctive difference between us and every other white person in this country. Although many would disagree I’m sure. I think that there’s a lot of things about Israel and Judaism that people simply don’t know.
Since I was in my 20s, I’ve been very influenced by this book called The Thirteen Petalled Rose by Israeli rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. It’s about Kaballah, the Jewish mystical tradition, dating back to Isaac Luria. Luria was a Sephardic Jew who in the 1500s wound up living in Safed in what is now Israel. Jews had been expelled from Spain In 1492. 1492 was quite a year. You had this colonialism happening in the Americas, and you also had the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. And some of them went to Israel. And they created this mystical tradition which is all about taking their exile, their real political, physical sort of exile and thinking of it metaphorically as an exile from God. And thinking that this is sort of a universal condition that everybody faces. And then they find ways to talk about that, but also to talk about how we are not exiles from God. One of their famous concepts is Tikkun Olam, which means repairing the broken world.
JD: Christopher is the children of exiles—his Polish mother’s family moved to Israel after the Holocaust and his father, who’s Tunisian, moved there due to anti-semitism in North Africa after the creation of Israel. I’m attracted to the idea—and I don’t know if this gets lost in the conversation or not—that Israel is not monolithic, but that it’s composed of all these people that come from everywhere.
ZL: And race is very interesting in the way it plays out in Israel. A lot of the same problems we have in America exist in Israel. I’m not talking just about Jews and Arabs, I’m talking about light-skinned Jews and dark-skinned Jews. It’s a huge part of the political equation over there. And it doesn’t always play out in ways you might expect. What I’m interested in is pointing out the diversity of Israel, pointing out the diversity of Jews. Jerusalem has always been a metaphorical place.
JD: Right, but Israel as a state and as a metaphor are very different things.
ZL: I’ve always been interested in this idea that Israel is a beautiful metaphor. That when it becomes reality, it becomes something that is quite a bit more complicated. To go back to William Blake, one of his central ideas is that our task on Earth is to build Jerusalem, which he thought of as a purely imaginary place. But he also thought you had to be active in a world, you’re supposed to play a part in the world around you. And so that’s a paradox. And I don’t I don’t know what to do that information.
I wrote a whole book about Israel called I Pity the Poor Immigrant in 2014. Things have only deteriorated since then from my point of view. I’m still not particularly interested in having a political conversation about Israel, because I know that conversation’s not going to go anywhere. But I think that one of the things that anybody has to think about is that it exists. Whatever you think of it, it does exist. And that makes it more complicated than an idea. Even if you wanted to unwind Israel, walk it back, so to speak, how are you going to do that? But let’s face it, politics in Israel have moved even further to the right.
JD: There are similar themes between this novel and your last one, Vengeance, specifically, with the character Jesse, who’s incarcerated. What is it about prison that has kept you compelled to write about it?
ZL: I’ve become close friends with a few people who are either in prison or were in or out as part of my daily life, so it’s how I see the world now. It’s not a peripheral subject. It is part of the central subject for me, the central ambience of my life.
I’ve gotten to know more about this paradoxical aspect, I guess. I’ve gotten to know more about my friends who are or were in prison. And I still feel like I have very little understanding of how it would feel to be in prison. I can talk about them all I want but it’s a world I’ve never actually been in myself. But with this book, I felt much freer to write. I had done Vengeance, so I had confronted a lot of questions and political issues that one would have to confront about that subject. And this book was pure fiction. And I had more confidence about it. And I had gotten to know Quntos KunQuest and Layla Roberts [two formerly incarcerated people to whom the book is dedicated] a lot better.
JD: Like you said, themes of exile and violence exile run throughout your body of work, especially considering your book Evening’s Empire: The Story of My Father’s Murder. Do you find yourself gravitating toward stories about violence?
ZL: It’s a thing that I don’t like to write about, but I keep having to write about it. It’s the central energy of my work, for better or for worse. It would be pointless to resist that at this point.
JD: Has your understanding of violence and how people react to it changed over the course of your writing career?
ZL: Has it changed? No, it’s a mystery. There’s political violence and there’s economic violence. My father was murdered for very rational reasons about money. But there’s still the mystery of the ruthlessness of somebody doing it and causing it to be done. That is kind of fundamental, and in this new book, the violence makes no sense. And yet it does make a kind of sense, I think. But I think for me, violence is the baseline and we’re just lucky that it’s not a constant. I’m working through my fear.