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Shalev's latest novel is a brilliant Magical Realism examination of the human psyche.

By DAVID WAINER
October 18, 2007 11:05
3 minute read.
shalev book 88 224

shalev book 88 224. (photo credit: )

 
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A Pigeon and a Boy By Meir Shalev Schocken 320 pages; $25 A Pigeon and a Boy, the award-winning novel written by Meir Shalev and translated to English by Evan Fallenberg, tells the story of a man who, much like Odysseus, is homeward bound. But unlike Odysseus, Yair Mendelsohn, a middle-aged tour guide living in Tel Aviv, must forge a path to find a new home, away from the wife whom he does not love and from his city of birth, where thus far he has only encountered discomfiture and dissatisfaction. The novel is told as two intertwined stories. The bulk of the novel is dedicated to Yair's first-person narrative, in which he frequently shifts from childhood memories of growing up in a land he straddles uneasily, to his adult life in modern-day Tel Aviv. Living both in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as a child, Yair describes his alienation with the prevailing lifestyles in both cities. One Yom Kippur afternoon, Yair recounts, he and his brother are reprimanded by a passerby for eating figs on the fast day. The quiet piety of a Yom Kippur afternoon in Jerusalem epitomizes the atmosphere that constantly leaves him dissatisfied as a child. Yair feels inhibited in what he describes as nothing but a "silent city" - "Jerusalem during the Days of Awe, grumbling and righteous." Tel Aviv has its own unsettling faults. Conformity, superficiality and "flying paddleballs and young women's bathing suits" all make Yair uncomfortable. Just a stroll down Sderot Ben-Gurion fills him with feelings of discontent and shock as he notes the saturation of decadence: "They all have handsome dogs and children, each man looks like the next, each woman like the other, each man identical to his woman, each woman to her mate." Caught amid a struggle between the holiness of Jerusalem and the glitz of Tel Aviv, Yair begins to yearn for a place to call home. Thus does Yair, at about 40, overly introspective and neurotic, as is the case frequently with Shalev's idiosyncratic characters, armored and encouraged by his mother's last gift - money to find a new home - set out in a new direction. Interspersed is a story of a budding romance between two young pigeon-handlers on the eve of the War of Independence. "Baby" and "the Girl," as they are referred to in the novel, are teenagers when they begin working as pigeon dispatchers for the Hagana. Separated by their different assignments across the country, they maintain their romance by stealthily corresponding through love pigeon-grams along with the high profile messages at the behest of the Hagana. As their story unfolds and the atmosphere of an impending war looms, a Jerusalem battle stamps their story with a tragic twist that unexpectedly ties the two parallel stories - one generation apart - together. The homing pigeon, a venerated creature in the novel, is an imperative tool for the Hagana and the young couple, simply for its ability to unremittingly fly home from any geographical position. Shalev's juxtaposition of the pigeon's simple yet crucial flight homeward with Yair's more nuanced journey toward a home is conspicuously yet cleverly woven into the story. Symbolically, the pigeon becomes the fire within Yair to fly "above the crooked byways of those who dare not take the straight path. Above the footprints of those incapable of flight. Above the ancient columbaries long since abandoned by their residents... Homeward." Once again, Shalev's latest novel is a brilliant examination, within the realm of Magical Realism, of human psyche. In A Pigeon and a Boy, he enwraps the reader in a story that is well grounded in reality while incorporating the surreal. The 310-page novel finds its largest deficiency in its occasionally overly lush prose. As is characteristic of Shalev's literature, the protagonist is quirky, eccentric and has a head reaching for the clouds. A Pigeon and a Boy is at once a "sabra-esque" novel, for its introspectiveness and Jewish neuroticism and a wistful romance, universal in its scope and examination of human longing for a sense of roosting.

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