Works Discussed: Days Bygone (Cahier 7/Sylph Editions), Stalin Is Dead (unpublished)
A quick Google search for “Rachel Shihor” reveals a few, tauntingly sparse pieces of information. A small biographical blurb on the website of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris notes that Shihor has taught philosophy at Tel Aviv University, and offers the titles of some works of scholarship and two published novels. There is also a tiny thumbnail photograph: from what one can make out, a middle-aged woman with dark hair and glasses, her lowered eyelids giving her a soft, introspective expression. Apart from the abstract of an academic paper, virtually every other entry concerns a small work published in 2008 by the Cahiers series, Days Bygone, Shihor’s first work of fiction to be translated into English. Here is an immediate explanation for the scarcity of Shihor’s Internet presence: outside of her native Israel, familiarity with her work is limited to the forty or so pages of Days Bygone. This little book, beautifully assembled in turquoise and brown, is more than enough to reveal a writer who handles her ideas with arresting grace, and who deserves exposure to a far wider readership than she has so far been granted.
Days Bygone is a collection of four excerpts from Shihor’s novel Yankinton. The stories are narrated from the first-person perspective of a grown woman looking back on her youth in the Tel Aviv of the 1940s and 1950s, and they explore the themes of memory and childhood with a tender, but indisputably lucid eye. They are quiet stories, saturated with the rain-filtered light of past afternoons. Each is constructed around a simple event—a visit to a hospitalized grandmother, a parents’ evening out, a trip to the zoo: ordinary moments in a child’s life whose significance comes into focus only later, as the narrator looks back and takes stock of her life. Shihor displays a powerful sensitivity for such moments and unfurls them masterfully in her discreet and lovely prose.
In the story that opens Days Bygone the young narrator and her sister are persuaded by their aunt to befriend a monkey at Tel Aviv Zoo. To know an animal, according to the aunt, is to experience the sort of pure, unadulterated contact with nature whose memory can later safeguard a child against the loneliness and uncertainty of adult life. Circumventing the girls’ parents’ strict prohibition of pets, the aunt selects a particularly intelligent-seeming monkey, Giorgio, for them to shower with affection and treats, in return for his joyful cries of recognition when they approach his cage. But Giorgio, we learn later, has taken to heart his experience of being singled out, of being made special; when a monkey escapes Tel Aviv Zoo that winter and is killed by the police, it is clear to the narrator that it could only have been him. Looking back, years later, she sees that her aunt’s well-intentioned scheme condemned Giorgio to a life apart from his own kind, a life amenable to disaster, and inflicted on her nieces an early, stinging encounter with this solitude.
Readers of Shihor are no strangers to the acute alienation that leads Giorgio to escape his life in the relative safety of captivity. Looking back on the days of her childhood, the narrator of Days Bygone too will feel a painful knot of loneliness tightening her chest. As she remembers her trips to Tel Aviv Zoo, what emerges within her, however, is something far more complex than nostalgia, pain, or happiness. There is a unique ache associated with memory. This ache, the narrator comes to realize, lies in the fact that remembering is like trying to see with “eyes afflicted by cataracts”—that the true meaning of events cannot be grasped at the moment they happen, but only later, through the marred lens of one’s intervening life. Giorgio, therefore, cannot be saved from developing the illusions that lead to his demise, because it is only long after the fact that the narrator can understand her own role in fostering them. When as a young girl she excitedly watches Giorgio consume her gifts of sweets and sugar cubes, she cannot know that her joy will later be transformed, by the intervening years, into “the hurtful weight of the past.”
Many of Shihor’s stories are concerned with aches and weights of this kind. More often than not, characters are alone in some profound and intractable way. In her unpublished collection of shorts, Stalin Is Dead, Shihor returns again and again to characters whose lives are perceptibly tarnished by alienation. The brief, vignette-like stories are populated with old women in nursing homes, estranged family members, and strangers, exiles, and refugees. A retired judge sits at her home’s entrance, pleading with anyone who still has the privilege of entering and exiting: “Get me out of here! . . . She repeats this sentence roughly every two minutes, practically shouting it. She has no other sentences, this is the only one left to her, but to no avail. The management has said that no one is to respond to anything she says.” Once so powerful, capable of condemning a man with a single word, the judge has been rendered impotent. Her sentence hangs in the air, but nobody obeys her. Like those she formerly sentenced to life in prison, she is so alone.
The judge’s struggle to escape her predicament is the exception rather than the rule. It is rare that one of Shihor’s characters actively attempts to resist her fate. Very few rail against the loneliness they must endure every day; most are composed in the face of their isolation. In one story, “The Train,” a creature lives inside a mine. Train tracks run above it, and now and then a train passes and dislodges small pebbles and clods of earth, which fall onto the creature’s head. In a few brief sentences, Shihor describes this world. Then, a paragraph break, and two more sentences: “Once I climbed up to see the light of day and to see the world. Alongside black rail tracks I saw crushed weeds.” The text ends here. Though the creature laments being born inside a mine, with no one to talk to, it realizes that the world above can afford it no relief from its alienation. Up there, it can see, it will only encounter the same loneliness. The quiet transparency of the story’s sentences indicates that the creature has accepted this truth. It harbors no illusions or self-deceptions. It will spend its life alone, and to believe it could be otherwise would be to cause itself useless pain.
It is not only characters in exceptionally isolated situations that fascinate Shihor. Even the members of entirely unremarkable families suffer from clandestine feelings of estrangement that are no less serious, and all the more painful when they erupt to the surface. When she writes of these hidden grievances and doubts among families, Shihor is especially subtle. Days Bygone is haunted by the strange, aloof presence of the young narrator’s parents, whose conservative opinions and withdrawn demeanor are gradually revealed as Shihor describes how they handle the small, daily tribulations of life. When the narrator’s sister has the audacity to drop a hint about wishing for a pet at the dinner table, “[a] cloud of gloom would wrap my father’s face and he instantly snapped back: —So long as I am alive no animal will enter this house!” There is something comical about this thunderous refusal, but a strident note of seriousness is added later when we learn that the parents suffer from their own deep insecurities and disappointments.
We come to learn this in the third story of Days Bygone, when the parents, having been cheated by “someone who presented himself as an expert in the installation of hot-water boilers,” set off in tentative pursuit of the “unscrupulous villain.” In the narrator’s imagination, the parents take bus after bus to ever more desolate neighborhoods, first to Netanya, then to Dora, sweating in the hot Israeli sun, until they must finally confront the fact that they have failed. And they understand not only this but also that
throughout their lives success would evade them, even though they could not really understand the word and they only grasped its meaning by how it was transmitted to them by others and how it was mentioned in the newspapers and in radio broadcasts. And this success would not be part of their lot. This they understood, and in Dora they reconciled themselves to this understanding, which somehow or other passed on to me too, and I lived it, and later on I handed it down to my children.
Although the reader is not given a complete portrait of these two individuals, what we do learn about them suggests that their presence in the story and in their young daughter’s life is extraordinarily complex. They are unpleasantly strict and disapproving of new ideas, yes, but they cannot be dismissed as villains—we know too much about their own tragedies. It is clear that they trouble the narrator considerably, but she never judges them for their failings. Instead, she quietly records their influence on her life. Like the creature in “The Train,” she soberly accepts that the warmth she craves from them will always be lacking in some crucial way. Despite their aunt’s best efforts “to save me and my sister from the life of solitude that awaits us all,” the narrator, looking back on her childhood, understands that this “terrible loneliness” was bearing down on them even then. The air was heavy with it. It could be seen on early summer evenings when dusk had permeated every corner of the house, and the lights are suddenly turned on.
When the lights went on, we were all still embarrassed. It was difficult to register one another’s expressions, which the darkness had slightly obscured and which had thus been forgotten, and when the light went on, owing to its intensity and hence its somewhat violent appearance, the new wrinkles and the weariness etched on our troubled faces, which had deepened during the day’s tediousness or in those moments of obscurity while we were waiting for the new day’s arrival, had become more pronounced.
Parents, through a trick of the light, become strangers, and faces seen every day of one’s life suddenly appear harsh and unfamiliar. There is, however, also a different kind of stranger in Shihor’s stories. Refugees, exiles, and those who are unwanted everywhere have a strong presence in Stalin Is Dead. Their situation is examined from both perspectives—that of the new arrivals themselves, and that of those who are obliged to receive them. In “The Bus,” a group of people stand by the edge of a road, attempting to flag down the buses that drive by, but none stops for them. They are the survivors of some unknown disaster, but they do not yet regard themselves as refugees. Finally, after failing to stop many buses, one member of the group
suggested that we sit where we stood and that we wait for the arrival of the good driver. Probability theory confirms that this would eventually happen, he said. The good driver must show up. We sat where we stood and we established the first refugee camp. Later on, the land was full of them.
Perhaps the good driver is a compassionate citizen of the new country who will take pity on the stragglers and stop for them. Chances are there is one such individual among the nation’s contingent of bus drivers. Still, it is impossible to eliminate the feeling that the good driver is something more than that. God forces himself into the picture. He is the one who is supposed to be good, whose job it is to show up and carry his suffering children to safety. But instead the land continues filling up with refugees.
God’s absence is just as conspicuous in “The Tower of Babel.” A native of a city watches anxiously as the avenues of his hometown fill with newcomers “from a faraway land”:
They had already occupied the two rows of blankets that had been prepared for them. There they were with their women, their many children, their own blankets—brought from afar, rolled up and tied with string—and plentiful used toys all of which had, in the ensuing turmoil, overrun the first layers of blankets; and still, they kept on coming, arriving in lorry-loads, tipping their goods onto our avenue.
The alarmed bystander attempts to question one of the refugees: where have they come from? What are they doing here? But, not having been understood, the man receives no reply. “We were to one another like the builders of the Tower of Babel. At the time, we could have still gone our separate ways, and then things would have returned to normal in our city, but we did not do so.”
A number of complex ideas emerge from these two sentences. God not only abandons refugees but also creates them. It is because He has abandoned us that we are strangers to one another. And yet one cannot hold God responsible like one can a person. He is a failed idea, and so there can be no one to blame. I think that this understanding is deeply lodged in the consciousness of Shihor’s characters. There is no sense in being angry at an entity we dreamed up ourselves in the first place. The fantasy may have failed to protect us, but what we get instead of security, perhaps, is a greater clarity about our condition. Shihor’s characters are terribly lonely, but their loneliness is not unbearable because they understand this trade-off. It is preferable to live with the pain of knowing that one is alone than to endlessly fool oneself into believing otherwise.
The Tower of Babel also contains the seed of a more local interpretation. Though Israel and the particularity of its political situation are never mentioned explicitly, it is difficult not to see some significance in Shihor’s fascination with refugees and displaced persons. Possible allusions to Israel, however, are so subtle I found myself wondering whether I was imagining things or trying to project my own expectations onto the text. Shihor is certainly concerned with the universal figure of the stranger, and the refugee—like the parent, the lonely retiree, and the child—is one of its incarnations. One could say that the stories in Stalin Is Dead are conceived like brief essays or small and perfect capsules, each containing a view onto a character, and through him, an idea. They are uncannily like Kafka’s fables, combining the same marvelous attention to detail with an irresistible tendency toward the universal. They cannot be tied to a particular country, time, or political circumstance. And yet Israel is still mirrored in them.
The last lines of The Tower of Babel evoke the complexity of Israel’s relationship to the concept of the refugee: a nation of refugees, who, in the process of making their new home, have made refugees of others. “We were to one another like the builders of the Tower of Babel.” The divisions between the two people are senseless, but all the same communication between them is no longer possible. In another world, perhaps, they “could have still gone [their] separate ways, and things would have returned to normal,” but this was not destined to be.
Even aside from the lack of clear-cut political overtones to Shihor’s work, it is not accurate to identify her solely as an Israeli author. As Shihor’s translator into English, Ornan Rotem, points out in his excellent afterword, such a claim would be wanting in nuance. Shihor’s fiction, Rotem writes, fluently combines Hebrew’s rich historical vocabulary with contemporary usages and expressions: “ancient words or word formations will be inflected in modern idiom, or ‘played’ in a contemporary, dissonant key.” By embracing into her language the powerful historical resonances of Hebrew, Shihor claims her place in “a much broader cultural phenomenon reaching far beyond geographical confines.” Her appreciation of the age of Hebrew, with its accumulated strata of meaning, ranks her not just among her fellow Israeli writers, but among the Hebrew scholars who have been using and enriching the language for two millennia.
If there is one way in which Shihor is thoroughly an Israeli author, it must be in her choice of settings. Both Yankinton (from which the excerpts that make up Days Bygone are taken), and her previous novel Ha-Tel Avivim (“The Tel Avivians”) take place in Tel Aviv. Though Rotem points out that the excerpts alone cannot fully convey the setting, there remain enough allusions to local particularities to create a delicately penciled portrait of the city. The setting emerges gradually out of beautifully evoked details—the “pale shutters the color of impermeable metal”, for instance, or the type of tree lining the pavements (they are ficus trees). Many of the narrator’s observations concern the light and the air. Each city has its own kind of air, and in Tel Aviv there is something unique about the warm nocturnal billows that remain when the day’s light has receded. Sometimes they can distort one’s vision, and make the familiar frightening.
I went over to the window. From the fourth floor the street appeared to have grown longer and to have become endless. . . . The night breeze entered the room. A noctuid moth stole into the room and kept hitting the walls with its wings. In the darkness it can’t find its way around, I thought to myself. Its skull-like face disturbed me.
These are the kinds of things the narrator remembers from her childhood. Certain events cling to her and are transformed into epiphanies by her adult mind, but encircling and encompassing it all there is an atmosphere created by the light and air.
In my reading of these two short works by Shihor—the only ones that have currently been translated into English—I have highlighted many themes that may lead one to think that Shihor’s work is bleak in its outlook. Although this is not misleading, it also does not complete the picture. Moments of extraordinary, uplifting beauty surface on virtually every page. Their sadness does not adulterate, but rather enhances their loveliness. There is also a very tangible, human warmth to Shihor’s language, which comes out particularly strongly in the first-person narrative of Days Bygone. This is a story about a person trying to grasp what her childhood was and what it meant. She has no bitterness, is not interested in assigning blame for the loneliness that afflicts her life. She is interested in treating the people who shaped her youth with decency, with the most lucid gaze an autobiographer can muster. She wants, in other words, to discover a truth about her life.
In the essayistic last story of Days Bygone, the narrator reveals the understanding she has come to about her past. Childhood cannot be understood as it is happening, and later, when one revisits it in memory, what one sees is not childhood. “Each of us will remember one thing and together we will remember all the impressions and experiences and all the heartbeats of childhood; however, it is not childhood that we will remember, as only through perpetual forgetfulness can we retain childhood inside of us.” Childhood is what exists in the gaps between what can be understood and analyzed later in life—it seeps away unnoticed through the cracks, leaving its inconclusive residue: letters on a page dissolving in the weak evening light, a feeling of loss, the mental image of a card player’s hand.
The sadness that emanates from this realization is palpable. Not only is there something that alienates people from each other, but even our own pasts are not truly accessible to us. We couldn’t know childhood as it was happening, but it is even more impossible now. However, the episodes the narrator has chosen to revisit are more than just a collection of fragments. They have demanded the narrator’s—and Shihor’s—attention for a reason. Even if the narrator could only recognize it years later, each of these moments marks a subtle change in her consciousness, an experience that contributed to the unique shape and contour of her life. Though the characters of Shihor’s fictions unavoidably encounter pain and solitude, there is rarely a sense that their suffering renders their lives futile or devoid of a capacity for warmth and tenderness. This capacity may only rarely be exercised, but it is present in many characters, and it is always there, just beneath the surface, in Shihor. We are permitted a glimpse of it in Stalin Is Dead.
With us in the nursing home lives the ancient daughter of the former mayor, and every week her old manicurist comes to see her, like an emissary from her previous life. . . . And the former mayor’s daughter, whose head resembles a thorny tower, will hold up to her eyes the tiny containers of creams and hair dyes that always overflow from the manicurist’s little case. Later on, they will drink instant coffee from the machine . . . they will sip the wonderfully tepid coffee, and for a while it will seem to them that the whole world is in retreat, and before long, no one will be left but them, sitting beneath the broad-leafed mulberry tree, sipping their coffee as if they have nothing save one another.
Shihor is the opposite of a misty-eyed writer. Her writing penetrates to the truth of the aches and anxieties all people share, though they must generally suffer them alone. Yet amid these painful realities, moments of relief are still possible. Instead of violating the melancholy logic of Shihor’s world, these gentle moments are as much part of its reality as the distressing loneliness attending her character’s lives. They add resonance to Shihor’s portrait of human life. The world may not have much warmth to offer, but what little there is is enough to enable not just survival, but life.
Mona Reiserer is a student of literature and illustrator. She lives in Vienna.
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