Friday, May 26, 2006


“I lay on a bed of jonquils, staring up at the sky. Flocks of migrating storks soared overhead, circling like tiny water insects on a clear, transparent pond. Back in the Ukraine, two storks had nested in the chimney of Grandfather’s house. ‘I knew that they visited the Land of Israel each year and came back with a bellyful of the frogs of Canaan,’ Grandfather told me. Were the grandchildren of those storks flying over me now?” (The Blue Mountain, p. 84)

This paragraph from Meir Shalev’s book The Blue Mountain illustrates how he constantly ties together his narrator’s own past and present, Israeli history, and Jewish experience. The fictious grandfather’s rich experiences contrast with the narrator’s rather limited horizon. For example, jonquils are native to the Middle East, rooted in the narrator’s environment. The storks, in contrast, are exotic seasonal visitors.

The grandfather’s trek from Ukraine to Palestine, his struggles to learn about fruit trees, cows, and building a house; the misfortunes and deaths of various characters, and the simple narrator’s efforts to cope with so much history make a powerful story. The eccentric and even bizarre personalities of his characters make some episodes ironic or outright humorous. Tragic misfortunes occur in the story, but are often repeated in a less tragic way: an example is the life and slow death of the town’s mule, who immigrated from Russia with some pioneers.

Shalev’s choice of details superimposes the idealism of zionists in the Ukraine, of the immigrants, and of the pioneer farmers onto the reality of the collective farm and its special characters. Throughout the book, the narrator is discovering new details about his parents, his grandparents, the other cofounders of the collective farm in Galilee, and their views as members of “the movement.”

The description of quarrels about the swampiness of the farmland, the deaths of trees from burrowing moths, the breeding of cattle, the dedication and personality of the teacher, and the rivalries between the kibbutz next door and the members of the collective farm make a captivating tale. Reading the book while in Israel has been especially dramatic for me. I could much better picture the farm landscape in the book because I had just visited the Jezreel valley where the events took place.

The author, in the person of the naïve narrator, uses various narrative techniques. Shalev choses extreme events: an uncle’s face disfigured in war, parents violently killed, passionate love and hatred, and the bizarre scheme that has accidently made the narrator a rich man living in an expensive house on the beach in Tel Aviv. The narrator’s wealth arose because he accepted large amounts of money from diaspora Jews who wished to be buried on the farm in Israel. This scheme also illustrates the decline of the idealism and farming ethic of the earlier generations and their “movement.”

The connection between the narrator’s modern cemetery and the ancient burial caves of Bet Shearim was another coincidence for me: we visited this third-fourth century on our trip to that region last week. The events in the book were rather different than our experience: the schoolteacher, an important character in the book, led his students on a hike to Bet Shearim, which at that time was a locally known attraction, not a national park as it is now.

Historic events and politics in the novel are both blurred and heightened by omission of specifics. The narrator repeatedly mentions “another war.” He talks about relationships to English officers, about the neighbor who hid weapons in his outhouse, the cruel injury of his uncle, and other such things, but without naming the war, the controversy, or even the enemy. His use of the term “the movement” avoids explicit discussion of politics in detail. Moreover, he never mentions political parties, generals, or statesmen. Only to some extent can the reader reconstruct the exact historic time line. He thus reinforces the basic humanity and universality of the story, while retaining the particulars of an Israeli experience.

For a reader who doesn’t know Israeli history, the lack of specific detail here might be somewhat disconcerting, but I think Shalev did a masterful job of merging narrative and history. I think the book captures a great deal of the Israeli spirit, and would be enjoyable reading for anyone.

On Wednesday as we drove north, we saw many storks above the road, circling just as Shalev describes, and I thought about the beautiful passage about this transient bird. I’ve often wondered if the Jews in those shtetls knew that their storks had actually passed through the land they only dreamed about: Shalev says they did. To me, it’s all the more meaningful, because my father’s village (just over the border from Ukraine in Belarus) also had storks on its roofs in the summer before he left for America 85 years ago. The storks still come back there, I learned once on the web, though of course all the Jews are long gone.

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