Monday, December 29, 2014 Tevet 7, 5775

A Different Life

April 15, 2010 By:
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I can think of no more fitting book to turn to on Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, than Haim Sabato's From the Four Winds. The plot -- if it can be called that -- of this obviously autobiographical novel is simplicity itself. This is the author's fourth work of fiction -- following Aleppo Tales, Adjusting Sights andThe Dawning of the Day, all of them published by the enterprising and always surprising Toby Press -- and it is drawn from Sabato's childhood in Israel during the 1950s. His family, immigrants from Egypt, were placed in a ma'abara, a transit camp, as so many other immigrants groups were at the time, till permanent housing could be constructed.

All of the family's fellow Egyptians are demonstrably and publicly happy to have escaped the difficulties in their former country. But they are all puzzled by their neighbors, the Hungarian immigrants, in the poor area of Beit Mazmil, who seem forever forlorn and uncommunicative. The Egyptians, never having met survivors of the Shoah before and little aware of what occurred in Europe, cannot fathom the overwhelming sadness and silence that hangs like a shroud about them.

The young narrator, however, has his own personal link to the Hungarian community in the charismatic person of Moshe Farkash. This gregarious, high-spirited man is the young boy's guide to the mysteries of the adult world, and especially to the forlorn nature that seems so endemic to his fellow Hungarians.

But if the work's plot is simple, the telling of it is marked by different levels of beauty and nuance that stay with a reader long after the work is completed. The book is not "difficult," in the sense critics use when they speak of the great works of modernity. Everything is clear and comprehensible, but there are stories upon overlapping stories eventually told by Farkash about the life of the Hungarian Jews in Europe -- especially his family's complex tale -- so that in the end, the work is not just about a small boy's maturation, but is also about the intersection between the young Israel and the more ancient Old Country that nurtured so many Jews, then turned on them in vicious, murderous ways.

Beautiful Set Pieces

From the Four Winds offers all sorts of incidental pleasures. There are beautiful set pieces about everyday life in the early years of the Jewish state. (The able translator is Yaacob Dweck.)

"The winter of 1959 was cold and blustery," writes Sabato in his opening passage. "Or maybe it just seemed that way to me. I was a small boy, a student in the second grade at the Talmud Torah in Bayit ve-Gan. Several months earlier we had emigrated from Egypt to the Beit Mazmil housing projects located near the asbestos transit camps. We were not accustomed to the Jerusalem chill. Every day I used to wake up early to wait for the number 18 bus at the stop near Kadosh's kiosk. I'd clutch a cloth bag, holding a volume of the Mishnah, an arithmetic book, and several notepads. Sometimes the bus came, sometimes it didn't. If it came it was usually packed and crowded. Sometimes it stopped, sometimes it didn't. The waiting area overflowed with people. Day laborers with tired faces, their reflections fragmented in the puddles on the pavement, gesticulated and shouted, beseeching the driver to stop so they could avoid being late for work. Several of them just might have earned their keep in the Promised Land. They were covering Mount Herzl with trees. The passengers on the bus stood packed, holding on to the leather straps that dropped down from the ceiling, swaying from side to side. The driver threw up his hands as if he were participating in the suffering of those standing in anxious anticipation and screamed: 'It's full, it's full.' If he so much as cracked the door to let someone out, the heaving mass immediately hastened to pry it open. Several lucky ones and a few aggressive ones succeeded by brains or by brawn to push themselves between the door and the driver, grabbing hold of whatever they could in order not to fall."

Sabato's descriptions of the differences between the Hungarians and Egyptians are also vivid and striking:

"An elderly couple," states the narrator, "lived in the house next door to us. The house was shut all day and all night, and the windows were covered with heavy dark blinds. Our family and our neighbors who had emigrated from Egypt, Mr. Solomon Israel and Monsieur Anteby, Mrs. Gamila Chehebar, the Menasseh family, the Adjmi family, and Mr. Morris Bersano, we were all used to open homes, neighbors coming and going without asking permission, windows wide open, the scent of fried and spicy food wafting through the area, the voices of children joyfully playing all around. But in the houses of the Hungarians there was always silence, and they always asked us, the children, to be silent, totally silent."

The differences in these houses works in the book both in an actual and a symbolic sense, and Sabato achieves the qualities simultaneously, without any strain whatsoever.

Despite these passages of wonderful description and the multitude of incidental figures who flow through the narrative, there are really only two major characters: the narrator and his mentor, the irrepressible and dynamic Farkash.

It is the latter who always stops the children from pestering an old Hungarian woman -- at least, she seemed old back then to these young ones, the narrator admits -- as she makes her daily trek to the grocery store. And, we are told, Farkash always seemed to appear from out of nowhere. To the narrator, the older man with ties to the silent Hungarians was at first also a puzzlement.

"He appeared to be of middle age, vigorous, full of life and strength, but his face was the face of an innocent boy. His face was ruddy and seemed playful, but his eyes were melancholic. I could not make sense of him."

Farkash speaks enigmatically at times of knowing people like the principal of the narrator's Talmud Torah, though "not in this world but in the other one."

The young boy wonders what this could mean. He knows that there's this world and the world to come, but what could possibly be meant by the other world? Despite his curiosity, he stops himself from asking. "Everything needed to become clear of its own accord," he states with a maturity that extends beyond his years.

At one point, Farkash asks the narrator to introduce himself. The young boy tells his friend he's a new immigrant, as he's been trained to say.

" 'We are all immigrants,' Farkash hurried to respond. 'New immigrants, old immigrants, this land too, it is both old and new. Certainly you know that ... If you need anything, ask for Farkash, and, one day, just maybe, I will actually need your help.'

"He finished and got up to leave ... He turned around and looked into my eyes as if he were trying to explain something. There was another look in his eyes, of pain, as if he were looking out into the distance. Then I knew that I was right about what I had first seen. His eyes seemed to be full of joy, but they always darted back and forth as if he were avoiding something or someone. I knew something had happened to Farkash. He was concealing a different life. What was his story? I asked myself again and again. But I knew that everything needed to become clear of its own accord," he says yet again.

And once Sabato firmly establishes his characters, along with the terrain and the mood -- this takes him till about the book's midpoint -- he then lets Farkash tell his woeful tale of a family's experiences in Europe during two World Wars and the Shoah. And in time, the narrator does get his chance to help him, and with that help provides, via the larger, more inclusive story he tells throughout this narrative, a meditation on Jewish history and religion that, in the end, is profoundly moving.

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