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Sad, spare prose
By Yitzhak Laor
What is it that makes these very short stories, these fragments by an Israeli writing in English, so powerful?

"Picnic Grounds: A Novel in Fragments" by Oz Shelach, City Lights Foundation Books, San Francisco, 116 pages, $11.95



"A man in Kiryat Ono died of a stroke before his grandson was old enough to see his Red Army insignia, acquired in exchange for milk at a displaced persons' camp in northern Bavaria. No witness survived to tell the man's family of his real work during World War II."

This is the shortest fragment in the book. Shelach is a wonderful writer. There is no doubt that, from his very first book, he has a great future ahead him. This book should be read slowly in small sips, not gulped down, like a very bitter drink (not an intoxicating one). The bitterness has something powerful about it. As in the fragment "Symptoms," in which a professor tells his listeners about traumatic symptoms and about his son: "His son, after his army service, had gone to New York, where he spent some time every day alone on the fire escape outside his window. Roosting on the iron grates, the son reported a rare sense of happiness and a surge of ideas, but when he crossed the window sill to come back in he felt his mouth go dry, very dry. The son wrote down what he saw: Always one small pedestrian figure sneaking across the road between cars, trying to catch the drivers' eyes."

And in this very same mode there is the tale of a radio broadcaster, who drives home after the news and his car falls off a bridge, because it never occurred to him that the collapse of the bridge he had just reported on the news was part of the reality.

What is there about these points that make these very short stories, these fragments, so powerful? Sometimes they contain a revelation of what we realize, with certainty, all at once, like the unknown past of the man from Kiryat Ono, like the fog that is suddenly lifted with the help of the symbols and the discovery of milk. Sometimes this is an almost impossible image, like that delivered by the expert on trauma, who recounts his son's experiences. It is the son who ostensibly sees the eyes of a passerby who is crossing the street like a human ant. Only the word "ant" is missing here, to make the fragment chatty. With Shelach, there are no excess words. Everything is wonderfully exact.

Here is a well-known professor of literature. He is complaining to his wife about writers' excessive preoccupation with death. The more he talks about this, the more she objects. "She felt closer to the deceased, who appeared to her to be so fragmented, and yet so whole. `What right have you, who are,' she never told him, but he could hear her think, `not just a leech, being a critic, but indeed a maggot, burrowing in dead books, to make such accusations?' The two did not talk frequently."

In the story "Tu Bishvat," the reversal occurs right at the beginning: "Each spring, sometimes as early as early January, when almond trees blossom white and pink, the birthday of trees is celebrated throughout Israel. Thousands of boys and girls in white shirts, and foreign donors congregate at designated sites to plant new starts and expand the forest." The foreign donors undermine the idyllic description of the innocent celebration. Immediately thereafter, the description is scrambled by means of a caricature: "One boy in our class, however, called the ceremonies fascist and murderous." Why? Hah: "Pines grow acrid needles and shed them, thereby annihilating all other growth, wild flowers, shrubs and smaller indigenous trees."

Here, then, is Shelach's dialectic: Every sentence undermines the previous irony. "He said, obviously repeating words he heard at home, that forestation of land that was not formerly forested, but which seems every year to hold fewer marks of stone terraces, as rubble and orchards disappear among and under the pines, is a part of what he called `the big lie of our existence.'" Now the child's hysteria approaches the logic of the story, and because the narrator is not hysterical, but rather wounded, because of the innocence he has lost, and the point cannot but arise from there: "We had been friends with that boy, but on that celebration of Tu Bishvat did not share with him the customary foods of the holiday, dried figs, dates and nuts, neatly packed for us by our parents."

Reading this sequence gives rise to the image of a very mature narrator, with fine taste yet nevertheless without any tendency to flatter anyone's taste. It is clear that Shelach has read Franz Kafka and Julio Cortazar and Hanoch Levin, but it is also clear that without a whole and complete world and without a personal, confident voice, brilliant in the way that a definite artist is a genius, Shelach would not have succeeded in writing such spare prose and would never have been tempted to write a poem, to be personal, to reveal anything apart from the little that the fragments intentionally reveal: a certainty that is all at once revealed to be a lie, and when the lie is exposed, a painful truth is revealed. Almost every one of the stories deals with revelation of one key, a new sign, and interpretation.

The `real' peeps out

This is how the book begins: "A professor of history from Bayit Vegan in Jerusalem took his family for a picnic in a quiet pinewood near Givat Shaul, formerly known as Deir Yassin. It was not too cold to be in the shade and not too warm to build a fire, so the professor passed on to his son camping skills he had acquired in the army." Here, there is the description of this knowledge and then, in compact language, as if it were written in Hebrew, dryly (as befits his fine English): "The professor did not talk of the village, origin of the stones. He did not talk of the village school, now a psychiatric hospital, on the other side of the hill. He imagined that he and his family were having a picnic, unrelated to the village; enjoying its grounds outside history."

Sometimes the "real" peeps out, like in the famous picture by Breughel, toward the end of the story and sometimes at its beginning. There is always something strangled, dry, uncompromising and distant, like the distance between the Jerusalem neighborhood and San Francisco, where the book was published, where wonderful poetry like this has been written since the 1970s in the school named after the city, which is more than anything reminiscent of what Shelach does in his texts.

And thus, in a different register, that moves from sarcasm to the revelation of the horror of the slaughter at Ein al-Hilweh (1982), there is the tale of a Bedouin in Sinai: "We invited him to sit with us and drink Turkish coffee from the pot he had prepared for us, hoping to hear from him authentic stories about opium fields in the mountains, not about history, from which we, as Israelis, had fled south."

The dryness is part of a fine sarcasm that develops into expression full of restrained fury: "The Bedouin waiter was not a Bedouin. In the beginning he had been a teacher, and at 22, overnight, left his work and his village, Sasa, in the Galilee, heading north, then zig-zagging northeast and northwest until, after some months stopping at `Ayn-Al-Helweh [Ein al-Hilweh] refugee camp in Lebanon."

Now comes the voice of the narrator, and again reveals the land that is a wound: "He told us, in English learned from tourists, about stealing across the border back into what had become our country, to work in the fields of his village, which were by then the fields of a kibbutz, which bore the same name, Sasa; then stealing across the border to Egypt." Now, in Sinai, the story is told of a neglected Palestinian boy in Ein al-Hilweh, with whom the "Bedouin" runs, every day and every night, from the tent to the clinic, until he is killed in that massacre. The story of Sinai, which has been written by Oz Shelach.

We live in a small country. If we know who Oz Shelach is, a shiver goes down our spine, because it is difficult to forget what this young storyteller's connection is to Sinai. But if we do not yet know who Oz Shelach is, let us be patient. No, he will not say a word about Ras Burqa, perhaps because that story has had so many interpretations that he hates, and he is telling the same story, over and over again, about our desire to escape from this country that has no history, and the return to its history, which is not our history. Again and again, nature is subverted; this is "our" nature.

In Tel Aviv begins the story "Traitor." The lecture by a botanist from Haifa University is canceled at the last minute, and instead a meeting of a panel on ethics is convened, before which the botanist must testify: "That year his explorations had taken him to an anemone field near Beit Shemesh, which confirmed what he had read in the history books but never had seen for himself: long strips of white, blue and purple anemones ran through the thick of the red ones, like veins."

And immediately everything is called into question. Sometimes the crime is ironic, that is, a crime on the part of the authorities. For example, here they dismiss the botanist: "His crime lay in publishing the site of his finding in an independent magazine." Do Tantura and Teddy Katz resonate in this story? Maybe they do, maybe they don't. In any case, the researcher is unanimously blackballed from the botanists' association.

Always `we'

Who is the speaker in these stories? Always "we." Sometimes it seems as though the narrator is a married couple, sometimes brothers, sometimes friends and it is always hinted that "we" spoke a different language, before we knew the truth. There is something terrible beneath the surface, and "we" did not know, and then we found out and thus, apparently, the transition to English. In order to change the audience of readers, which distinguishes between the "we" of the story and "we, the readers."

Only in one place does the narrator "forget" to use the "we," and all at once he reveals his character, his uniqueness, the power of his clenched lips: "I was a nostalgic from childhood. In kindergarten I longed for my nanny. In first grade I longed for kindergarten. In high school I longed for primary school (which was a horrible experience), and after joining the army I began yearning for kindergarten again, and even, after starting psychoanalysis, discovered a series of very early memories that were, so I learned, significant not in themselves, but in the fact that I had preserved them over so many years, anchors for a deep longing for an early formative age, for the first two years of my life. Having since boarded an airplane and left Israel full of bitter disillusionment and hope for the future, I now long for a time not very long ago, but which I have never known, before ever I existed, or, preferably, before we did."

Here, in a single stroke, the figure of the "we" ceases to be a mannerism, or part of an anti-fictional mannerism (as in the work of Hanoch Levin), or Kafkaesque style, or a description to the children of a mother, or a description of army buddies, and becomes the reason for writing in English, through which everything becomes, as if it had never been.

Now, this is the place for me to be sad. Samuel Beckett also immigrated from language to language. And so did Uri Zvi Greenberg. And I am not even a Canaanite. And I never really liked the poetry of Yonatan Ratosh [Oz Shelach's grandfather], and even less so his political vision, yet nevertheless there is something sad, perhaps even a part of that heavy sadness that nests within me, and not only in me but also within other people I know, who are no longer heard, who wonder whether they hadn't erred when they didn't leave, or came back.

It is extremely sad - why deny it? - to read this wonderful book, in English, in a literary tradition that is not local. This is what the grandson of Yonatan Ratosh writes, in excellent English: "At the Tel Aviv airport, waiting for a flight out, we noticed a poet from Tel Aviv, buying cartons of menthol cigarettes and cheap local brandy. In his youth, early on in the colonization, the poet had been associated with a pioneer militia, which prided itself on its violent attacks on the British, as well as its ruthless struggle against the locals. When asked by his friends in the militia to translate a manual for an English gun, the poet found a vocabulary vacuum on weapons in Hebrew - a language that preceded guns, if not violence - and had to invent words for trigger, bolt, range, and the like. His talent in these inventions - now household words in the army, the press, and the judicial system - is evident to this day. Kavenet, literally sights, the name he gave his daughter, is today a popular name for girls in Israel. The poet is mostly remembered for his poem `Sword.' We asked him, Are you that poet? He said, No."

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