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Fatalism and Humor in Israeli Fiction

Uncle Peretz Takes Off: Short Stories

By Yaakov Shabtai

Translated From the Hebrew by Dalia Bilu

Overlook Duckworth, 239 pages, $24.95.

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The Israeli author Yaakov Shabtai, who died in 1981, wrote several morbidly memorable first sentences. “Goldman’s father died on the first of April, whereas Goldman himself committed suicide on the first of January,” began his 1977 novel, “Past Continuous.” The opening of his semi-autobiographical “Past Perfect,” published posthumously, was no less focused on death. “At the age of forty-two, shortly after Sukkoth, Meir was gripped by the fear of death — a fear that took hold of him as soon as he had acknowledged the fact that death was a real and integral part of his life, which had already passed its peak, and that he was moving swiftly and surely toward it on a route that allowed for no digressions.” Written as one remarkable long chapter, both novels were lavishly praised for their prodigious narrative inventiveness and their brilliant portraits of Israeli society. Their publication catapulted Shabtai into the forefront of the Israeli literary scene.

Shabtai’s sudden death from a heart attack at age 47 makes his characters’ fear of mortality more than a tad eerie. And his shorter fiction — including the newly translated “Uncle Peretz Takes Off” — set mostly in Israel on the brink of its independence, is suffused with the same fatalism as his novels.

The 14 extraordinary miniatures that constitute this collection begin with the enchanting story “Adoshem,” narrated by a boy recalling living in fear of his ultra-religious grandfather, who seemed to him like “a sorcerer, like one of the magicians of Egypt.”

All night long evil spirits raged in the tunnels of his nostrils and the cavern of his youth…. In between prayers he was encompassed by an ancient silence which he never broke except suddenly to blow his nose, trumpeting like Doomsday, or to utter a few wrathful sentences if the hint of an infringement of the laws of Adoshem came to his notice, or to break in to the prayers which poured through his thick lips as indifferently as falling grain.

Aware that he is destined to “sacrifice” himself to society and to his grandfather and to become bar mitzvah, the narrator, who had prayed for a pardon or a miracle exempting him, goes to study with a “modern” rabbi (who sports a yarmulke with “Jerusalem” and “Good boy” embroidered in gold), under whose tutelage God emerges “as a unique combination of Flash Gordon, the Invisible Man, the high commissioner, and a magic remedy against every kind of ill.” The character of the grandfather, “the terrible rage of his faith” withering and yellowing in his face, is one of Shabtai’s great creations. Family members who transgressed, using the wrong eating utensils, would have their silverware snatched out of their hands by Grandfather, who would furiously plant the wronged fork or spoon or knife in a flowerpot on the balcony, once full of geraniums. “Pray, goy, pray!” Grandfather would shout in Yiddish after trapping his young grandson in the hall and dragging him to a chair where he would hold him in the vise of his legs.

The narrator’s adventures into the world of temptation commence upon meeting up with his classmate, Eli, the teachers’ “terror and abomination.” Together with Eli’s dog, the youths explore exotic areas of Tel Aviv, memorably evoked by Shabtai, and spend time with Eli’s “girlfriend,” Gentilla, who promises to cast a spell on the narrator’s grandfather to make him die. “He’s too old anyway,” she shrugs. Grandfather died a year later, his secret ritual objects quickly and mysteriously disappearing, but Gentilla lived on, the narrator recalls, “in the darkness of my fearful desires that whole year.”

Shabtai is a master at describing women’s appearances. The just-widowed Elisheva Gippius (in “True Tenderness”) “stood on her short, shiny legs like an indifferent partridge, and the wisps of grey hair peeping out of her fancy hat stuck to her broad face like seaweed…. Her chin sagged like a withered crop.” In the moving story “Departure,” the narrator recalls how his grandmother died, little by little, “like a strip of brown land, receding from the eyes of the travelers on a ship until it merges unto the horizon and disappears into it, so she faded away…. Like a chick inside an egg, death grew inside her, while she herself shrank.”

In “Uncle Peretz,” Grandmother tries to talk some sense into her son Peretz, a radical Communist, to no avail. Why, she asks, does he need to single-handedly save the world? “Leave all that to the goyim,” Grandmother beseeches him. “Better you should enjoy yourself in your life.” This avid party member is unimpressed. The world’s rotten and must be changed, he believes. Grandmother instructs him to leave the world alone; it is hardly his responsibility. “God will take care of it,” she says. “There is no God!” he retorts nastily. “Good, good,” she answers. “Leave Him alone. At least on the Sabbath let Him rest.”

Despite the fatalism infusing all his work, Shabtai had a talent for humor. For example, “Uncle Shmuel” is flat out hilarious. Perpetually restless, Shmuel, “a one-man political party in opposition to all the rest,” decides to settle with his once elegant wife, Aunt Zipporah, on a moshav, where he plans to build a “semi-automatic” henhouse. She is not amused by “this dreadful agricultural adventure” or by her lunatic husband, and grows to resemble a madwoman.

Regrettably for readers not familiar with Shabtai or his novels, Overlook has provided no introduction to either these terrific stories or their author. A curious reader might like to know the dates these stories were written and first published in Hebrew, and if there are other, as yet untranslated, stories. A reader is left to wonder if these stories were at all autobiographical, and about their critical reception in Israel. Another matter that might have been clarified is the relationship, if any, of the short story “Past Continuous” to the novel of the same name. In any case, “Uncle Peretz Takes Off” is an important book for anyone interested in modern Israeli literature, and it’s a wonderful introduction to a great writer.

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