Take It or Leave It
Memoir by the Netherlands’ most original and leading polemical journalist. Honest, intimate, full of self-mockery
The theme of this book is a classic and compelling one: it is the story of an individual who stands up against an all-powerful enemy. A cunning, unpredictable, and insidious enemy, in this case, and a very terrible one. When the author first discovered its identity she felt, as she records here, a reluctance even to name it. This is an enemy there is no winning against, but in Renate Rubinstein it has found a wily and watchful antagonist who fights back with whole heart and her whole intelligence.
Renate Rubinstein was a natural oppositionist. She went to China at a time when every other Western visitor was discovering with delight its revolutionary innocence and purity, and caused outrage by writing a book about the gross and evident anomalies to which all the other journalists had been happy to close their eyes. Living and working in Israel, at a time when Zionism was still a progressive shibboleth, compelled her to express even more awkward and unpopular views. She was in fact half Jewish (her father died in Auschwitz), and the title she gave her book on Israel – Jew in Arabia, Goy in Israel – says a lot about her attitude to the world.
In Take It or Leave It, her disconcerting eye for the contradictory is as unblinking as ever; she could have entitled it Sick Among the Well, Well Among the Sick. Because the enemy she faces here is of course an illness; progressive, crippling, and incurable.
She speaks out with all her characteristic sharpness against both a world that makes too little allowance for it and a world that makes too much. We are applauded these days if we struggle to ‘come to terms’ with such a problem. But no terms are available in this particular battle, and her struggle is rather to understand her enemy and herself, to devise stratagems and counter-stratagems, and to live, upright and unafraid, as long as life lasts.
There are no great revelations here, no recourse to mystery or discovery of faith. But there are surprises. In its quirky way this book is a classic of medical observation, dealing not with the cataloguing of symptoms but with what it’s like to be ill. We must all wonder, if we are well; and the better we are the more we must wonder. It turns out to be not quite as you might imagine – and not always worse. What Renate Rubinstein demonstrates, once again, is the dogged glory of human intelligence. We shall all come to sickness and death sooner or later. This book gives us a breath of hope.