True to his words

Local writer Meir Shalev on rural life, political literature and the deterioration of spoken Hebrew.

saba book 88 224 (photo credit: )
saba book 88 224
(photo credit: )
A Pigeon and a Boy By Meir Shalev Schocken 320 pages; $25 Grandpa Aaron and His Rain By Meir Shalev Am Oved 28 pages; NIS 59 Meir Shalev did not plan to be an author, but his mother, hoping he would, carefully selected his reading material. "She used to say, 'A pregnant woman shouldn't stare at monkeys,'" laughs Shalev, recalling an old Russian phrase. "She made sure I read only good literature, like Mark Twain, Sholem Aleichem, Charles Dickens, Erich Kastner. If I wanted to read Hasamba [a series of adventure books by Yigal Musinzon], I had to sneak over to the neighbor's house and read it there. "There was no censorship in the house I grew up in, and by the age of 14 my father had brought me Lolita [by Vladimir Nabokov] and said, 'Here, this is a book about a girl your age.' No parent back then let his child read this book at that age, but my father thought it was a masterpiece and that I should read it." Shalev, 59, was born in Moshav Nahalal in the Jezreel Valley. He comes from a family of writers: His father was the author and poet Yitzhak Shalev, his cousins are the authors Zeruya Shalev and Aner Shalev and their father is the literary critic Mordechai Shalev. He is married to Rina, who works for El Al, and they have two children, Zohar, 30, an industrial designer, and Michael, 23, a sommelier. For the past eight years Shalev and his wife have been dividing their time between the house in Jerusalem and the home in the Jezreel Valley. Shalev studied psychology at the Hebrew University and pursued a career as a TV and radio announcer. His first novel, The Blue Mountain (Roman Russi), was published when he turned 40, while his first children's book Michael and the Monster of Jerusalem was published in 1982. In A Pigeon and a Boy, which was recently translated into English, he writes about protagonist Yair's search for a house of his own, which he finally finds near Lachish. The sub-plot follows a love story between two young pigeon-handlers in the early days of the state. "I started to write a book about a person who leaves his wife and her house and goes and buys a home with the money his dying mother gave him, as she ordered him to do. I myself had this need to leave Jerusalem, at least partially, and went and bought an old house and renovated it, just as Yair does in the book. The house in the book looks exactly like my house but in a different location. I had the urge to return to the scenery of my childhood. The day my parents brought me to Jerusalem was a bad day for me, not because it was Jerusalem but because this was a city as opposed to a village." Yair's female contractor, Tirtza, with whom he has an affair, builds him a shower in the backyard. In real life, his daughter and her boyfriend built Shalev the shower he had long wished for. Shalev is known for his profound research into his characters' professions, their daily scenery and their unique jargon. Once he chose a baker, another time a stonemason, then a cattleman and, in his latest novel, a pigeon-handler in the Hagana. "I meet with the professionals and sometimes I spend a few months in their company. I need to watch them working, to hear their professional terminology and to see what they see. I write it all down in my research notebooks that stretch into the writing process, but then I already know the people so I pick up the phone and consult them. This process doesn't make me a professional, not once during my research have I held a plasterer's trowel or touched a pigeon," he reveals. He also tends to choose down-to-earth professions, people who earn their living with their hands. "I wouldn't write a story about an author or an accountant because I choose professions that interest me and have literary potential. Homing pigeons have that potential; bread is food with history, tradition, mythology and culture. I look for these sorts of professions that serve as the setting for the story and produce literary options." Though he is well known for his Yediot Aharonot columns in which he critiques politicians, the government and the Israeli nature, his books never touch on politics. "As a writer, as well as a reader, I have no interest in political literature. I have no problem with books that happen in a political reality - A Pigeon and a Boy takes place during the War of Independence - but I have no desire to use my literary ability to promote a political agenda and vice versa." He points to Homer to illustrate his reservations about political literature. "The Iliad is a political story about the Trojan War, the politics of Greece's kings, the treaties and the casus belli. The Odyssey is the story of the return of a husband and father to his family after 20 years of war - an examination of loyalty. Three thousand years have passed and The Odyssey is still a relevant story while the political story is forgotten. Besides, I am suspicious of political literature. In many cases it doesn't seem honest to me and some scenes seem forced." As for his children's books - he recently published Grandpa Aaron and his Rain - he says the ideas often come from his wife, who tends to notice the interaction of Shalev and his children and nephews. The children's book that became a local icon is Nehama the Louse, published in 1990 when Israeli children were plagued with lice and their parents, who had to clean their heads on a daily basis, suffered even more. "I told my daughter the story about Nehama the louse as I was combing her hair in the bathroom and had no idea that it was going to be a book. Rina passed by, listened and said, 'Write a story about it,' and I did." Besides the great love for this land and its landscapes that cannot be missed in his books, Shalev's writing is also known for its rich vocabulary. He says he never uses a dictionary or thesaurus to look for a word, "only to check the sources to make sure I quote correctly." He takes pleasure from the fact that a 10-year-old boy here can understand what is written in the Book of Psalms, for example, while people in Rome or in Athens are most likely incapable of understanding what is written in their ancient texts. "But the Hebrew language is changing - and fast. This is why it hurts so much to hear the language in the street. We are all appalled when someone says 10 shekels [in the feminine instead of the masculine], but processing the gender of a number is something that has happened in all languages. Here it is just happening right in front of our eyes," he says.