A Rich Parlor Game in Psychology and International Relations
New books dissected over email.
April 23 2002 5:37 PM

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Yes, Sarah, I'm with you on all of Revenge's strengths—it's a hypnotic read in pure narrative terms, and its implications make for a rich parlor game in psychology and international relations. The book's appeal sneaked up on me as well: Once I discovered that Blumenfeld's father was alive and well, her project of tracking down the shooter seemed unnecessary at best, indulgent and dangerous at worst. And Blumenfeld makes it worse for herself, in some ways: She's one of those self-deprecatory writers who anticipates all the obvious objections to her book within the text itself. When used successfully, this tactic flatters a reader with honesty; when used too successfully, it convinces the reader to put the book down. So, to readers who grow irritated with Blumenfeld's weirdly girlish bouts of self-criticism, hang on; once she reveals her final plans for revenge, you begin to understand why the author hesitated over her final act.

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I admit to getting a little impatient along the way, especially during Blumenfeld's round-the-world reporting project on how revenge is carried out in various societies. These travels produce some indelible moments—a Sicilian widow who, every year on the anniversary of her husband's death, sprays red paint on the sidewalk where he was gunned down by a Mafia hit; the grand ayatollah of Iran telling Blumenfeld that according to his calculations, the terrorist's family owed her family a blood payment consisting of one-ninth of a camel. As striking as they are, these passages have an air of postponement about them. Blumenfeld already knows who the shooter is (his name is Omar Khatib), where he's imprisoned (in an Israeli military jail), where his family lives (in a bedraggled house in the West Bank). She's circling her prey, but in the widest loop possible; we want her to come in for the literal or figurative kill. Besides, there's a whiff of false naiveté to her search: Is a Harvard-educated reporter for the Washington Post really going to rely on Albanian folk custom to decide how to confront the shooter? (According to the Albanian canon, the Khatibs owe the Blumenfelds 50 sheep and one-quarter of an ox—better to get shot in Albania than Iran, I guess.) Or maybe the whiff is of abstraction; she's turned a very personal project into a sort of general rumination on revenge, and we're eager for her to stop researching and start doing.

I don't want to give away too much about the book's climax. Actually, I take that back: It's been 10 minutes since I wrote that last sentence, and I've decided it's impossible to really get into the meat of the book without blowing at least part of the ending. So, stop here, Slate readers, if you don't want things spoiled. Suffice it to say that the ending involves a shocking act of trust and optimism on Blumenfeld's part, which is returned by declarations of remorse and forgiveness. (The shooter actually kisses Blumenfeld's mother.) Sarah, did you buy Khatib's—the shooter's—conversion?

You ask how I respond when someone wrongs a member of the Kantor clan. Luckily, none of us have been shot lately—though while I was reading this book, a friend called to tell me she'd been mugged (during the daytime, in the safe neighborhood of Greenwich Village, on a subway platform). She was absorbed in a book when a guy socked her in the face several times and ran off with her purse. After 10 years in New York, I've become pretty inured to this stuff, but immersed in Blumenfeld's book, I craved some sort of vengeance—maybe because it was my friend who was hurt, not me; maybe, as you say, because the damage was ultimately slight. I don't think my friend will be taking revenge, though, except maybe in the Blumenfeldian sense—she's about to start a job as a public defender. Which is as good a reason as any for not committing random acts of violence against others: The person you hurt may have been your greatest ally.

Yes, let's talk tomorrow about Blumenfeld's family, and the marriage/divorce theme that threads throughout the book. And let's cut to the bigger picture too. Does Revenge strike you as an artifact of rosy, cozy Oslo days gone by, or do you think it offers some shred of hope for Middle East peace?

Jodi

Jodi Kantor is a New York Times reporter and the author of The Obamas.