Saturday, July 14, 2012

Shulamith Hareven's "Thirst": Book Review

As biblical novellas narrating the raw core of what became mythic tales of Exodus and the settlement of Canaan, "the Desert trilogy" explores everyday characters on the fringes of the Hebrew migration and conquest. Hillel Halkin skillfully translates Israeli novelist Shulamith Hareven's spare, poetic, and blunt shifts of tone. Her characters struggle at the margins, far from Moses or Joshua, and they witness the dramatic changes in their lives distanced from the heroes, among scrub, wilderness, mountain hamlets, flimsy campsites, and uneasy cities, isolated and vulnerable. How the Exodus felt, if you were the type who was pushed aside or stayed out of Moses' way.

These accessibly told, yet literate and elegantly phrased stories combine vivid protagonists with an omniscient point-of-view which glides from interior observations of characters with untutored, basic perceptions to unsparing, distanced, modernist dispassion about their fates. We care about them, but we also watch them along with Hareven, as from a detached, resigned, existential perspective. All three figures "thirst" for understanding, but they confront a tense terrain where borders are invisible and where journeys may end in betrothal, betrayal, or sudden execution, and where enemies lurk unseen.

Eshkar's resentment of Moses and his fellow Hebrews who keep wandering in Sinai when they could easily enter the Land of Promise comprises "The Miracle Hater." The rabble of fleeing slaves and castaways from Egypt, along with hangers-on and no-accounts, relies on their leader. Moses promises the crowd they will enter the Land, but he exacts from them fealty. "He talked on about olives, about pomegranates, about grapes, about figs, and wearily they answered, yes, yes, anything you say, as long as we don't all have to drop dead in this desert, amen. No, they would make no more statues or graven images. Yes, they would not murder. They would not bear false witness. Whatever he told them, amen."

After the Golden Calf debacle, they submit to the Law. But, Eshkar cannot, and he herds beyond the movable camps of the desert tribe. "The deception of miracles was keeping them purblind and lost." (51) He enters Canaan, he sees it, and he returns, wondering why those he leaves behind delay.

There's no pat endings for his tale or the other two, but Hareven arranges the simple events in a manner that reflects how what the Bible makes grand once was so ordinary, as with Passover and the "tenth plague" emerging out of events barely elaborated upon, in an existential time without miracles at least as Eshkar can see. For Hivai, in the middle novella, "Prophet," his failure as such for his besieged city of Gibeon compels him to flee to seek sanctuary in nearby Ai, as the Hebrews press their campaign. (This is the longest entry and there's some wandering in its telling; the other two are more tightly told, but it never lacks inherent interest.) What transpires leaves Hivai "neither Gibeonite nor Hebrew," and the original situation for the Hebrews as marginal border-dwellers and outcasts becomes, inextricably, his identity as he shares their fate but not their satisfaction with the Land of Promise, until he meets another exile.

"After Childhood" takes us to the other vantage point, that of Salu, a "blinker" who lives in a hardscrabble hamlet near the Wilderness of Zin a few years or generations later. His marriage to a mountain dweller, Moran, allows Hareven to alternate between two main protagonists, and this enriches this evocation of the barren landscapes and intimate challenges faced by a bickering couple.

Just before the story concludes in a moving scene, Moran prefers--much of the book is in interior monologue with little dialogue--to stay apart from her Hebrew neighbors and family. "[S]he would rather God stayed away from her. Let him ignore her in his heaven, because the gods burned all when they came. They brought death and sickness and madness and drought. It's all we can do to make good what they ruin. Spare us both their honey and their sting. We're no match for them." (183)

Hareven's trilogy may be a metaphor for Israel and Palestine since, and this adds depth to her story, but taken on its own terse terms as an eloquent evocation of how people once scraped out a bare living in harsh times, it's also a universally applicable theme which will reward any careful reader. (Amazon US 6-4-12)

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