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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The English Teacher

Yiftach Reicher Atir

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To purchase The English Teacher

Title: The English Teacher
Author: Yiftach Reicher Atir
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 262 pages
Original in: Hebrew
Availability: The English Teacher - US
The English Teacher - UK
The English Teacher - Canada
  • Hebrew title: המורה לאנגלית
  • Translated by Philip Simpson

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Our Assessment:

B : melancholy tale of a spy

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Washington Post . 15/8/2016 Richard Lipez

  From the Reviews:
  • "Among the many insights of Atirís compelling tale is why people are drawn to this patriotic dirty work. (...) Although Atir never questions Israelís overall policies with its neighbors -- the countryís survival as a Jewish state is an operational given here -- he does portray heartbreakingly the moral toll on the individuals who carry out what recent Israeli governments have deemed necessary for the countryís safety." - Richard Lipez, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The English Teacher of the title is Rachel Ravid -- also known as, for example, Rachel Brooks, or simply as: "a sophisticated implement nicknamed Fairy" -- a one- and some-time agent for Israel. When she was active, on her most elaborate mission -- embedded as a fake Canadian in an Arab country -- the signal for her to get the hell out of there was a notification that her father had passed away; now, some fifteen years after she got that message, she gets it again -- only this time there's no secret meaning to the message beyond the simple, actual one: dad's dead. Rachel takes off for London, sits shivah for a week, and then simply disappears. She does call her old handler, the now retired Ehud, and in a neat reversal delivers essentially the same message that he had given her all those years earlier -- and its meaning is strikingly similar too: she's abandoning the life she knows, without leaving a trace behind.
       Rachel's present-day disappearance is apparently a problem: retired spies' former employers wants to know exactly where they are and what they're up to. They know too much -- so the claim -- and so cases like this have to be dealt with, and so, very quickly:

There was an all-out search for this one woman who threatened to become a loose cannon.
       Ehud immediately packs his things and joins the search -- which, in his case, basically involves getting together with his own even older former boss, Joe, and rehashing old times. The key to finding her, they think, isn't what all the active intelligence agents are doing in the command center -- trying to follow her present-day trail via the usual intelligence methods -- but in the past, in her work and who she was. So Ehud recounts Rachel's life-as-a-spy, from when he first got to know her through the various cases he oversaw.
       It's not a bad set-up, the novel switching from a hunt-novel to a more traditional spy's-life one for its long middle section, complete with accounts of a variety of her missions.
       Reicher-Atir admits in his opening note that:
The book spent many months with the Israeli civilian and military censorship committees; numerous changes and omissions were imposed, until the book was approved for publication.
       One has to wonder just how much the text was neutered; as is, the spy stuff is a bit disappointing -- especially since the all-out hunt for Rachel is predicated on her being privy to so much vital information that it would be devastating if she passed it on to the wrong people. As is, it's unclear why anyone would care: one hopes that the intelligence service would have updated their tricks of the trade (which surely now rely much more on electronic gizmos that she did not have access to or now, fifteen inactive years later, has knowledge of), while beyond the embarrassment of what she was involved in if it were made public even her cases are long done with. Sure, in this ultra-secretive age, all this self-important intelligence gathering is shrouded in veils upon veils -- but it all seems rather much ado about very little.
       Reicher-Atir also treads lightly with the operations themselves: we never learn what Arab country Rachel is sent to, and the nastier stuff -- extrajudicial killings -- is treated with little more than off-hand justification. One target was even a Nazi -- yes, there are still some to trot out, apparently -- now using his expertise for bad things, so doubly obviously deserving of being offed, no further explanation necessary.
       During her training Rachel is taught to avoid being photographed, and her face is obscured in the ones the officials have -- a blurring and concealing of identity that leads Rachel to observe:
'You're erasing me,' she said. 'If one day I really disappear, no one will notice.'
       Of course, that doesn't turn out to be true -- but this lack of any clear picture of her, the fact that no one really knows who Rachel is, is the fundamental problem: how do you find someone like that ?
       Reicher-Atir wants to present this kind of agent's life, someone who has to pretend to be someone else, in circumstances where they have no one nearby to fall back on and be their true selves with. He gives Rachel some daddy-issues that factor into her personality and decisions, and, disappointingly, the key to everything of course turns out to be a guy -- she had to go fall for a guy.
       It's all so obviously hopeless -- there's little doubt of how this is going to turn out -- and very melancholy along the way. Sort of hailed as a super-spy -- even the prime minister wants to meet her ! -- she can't really glory in her triumphs (which, in any case, don't seem like such a big deal -- or, when they are (the murders), are at the very least morally problematic), but recognition doesn't seem to be what she's after first and foremost anyway. Unfortunately, however, she remains very much a cipher even to the reader, right down to the bitter end -- part of the point of the story, no doubt, but also making it difficult for the reader to care much for what becomes of her anywhere along the way. The rather summarily treated long interim, between her active spying and the present-day events, also makes it more difficult to get much sense of her and her issues.
       There are enough intriguing odds and ends scattered throughout the relatively short and fast-paced novel, and Reicher-Atir manages some reasonably exciting scenes, and a few touching ones, but it's an odd mix of spy-adventure and more reflective tale. Again, it's hard to judge how censorship affected the story, but it really does feel neutered -- pointlessly so, one suspects.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 September 2016

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The English Teacher: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Israeli author Yiftach Reicher-Atir (יפתח רייכר-עתיר) was born in 1949.

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