A tale of one city - and two residents

In the pages of this unusual love story, the reader journeys into Tel Aviv as well as into the lives of the characters, in effect including the city as a third, silent protagonist.

When we danced on water (photo credit: Courtesy)
When we danced on water
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The female half of the human pair at the center of Evan Fallenberg’s new novel, When We Danced on Water, is a middle-aged waitress called Vivi, her name itself evocative of the city whose streets she walks for hours after her shifts at a coffee bar near the Tel Aviv Ballet.
We follow along as Vivi “walks eastward down Kaplan Street past the peaked-roof houses with flowerboxes built by the Templars, toward Azrieli Center, where she bends her head backward to stare at the edge of the triangular tower as it spikes the sky,” and then “walks north to the open emptiness of Rabin Square,” west “to the shade of the Royal Poincianas at Masaryk Square” and “south, where Tel Aviv really happens.”
Vivi wanders both literally and figuratively, in search of a self she has long been afraid to claim as her own. Damaged by a youthful failed romance, she’s gone from one meaningless job to another, dabbled in a variety of artistic pursuits and left the pieces of her broken heart where they fell years earlier. Keeping house with a man who hides his homosexuality from his religious family, she feels safe yet unsatisfied with a roommate who will never be more than a friend.
Then along comes Israel Prize winner Teo, an 85-year-old former Royal Danish Ballet dancer and head of the Tel Aviv Ballet. He becomes a regular customer at the coffee bar, and as he gets to know his waitress Vivi, he challenges her to stop dabbling in different disciplines because “with that kind of breadth you can never really be sublimely good at anything.”
As their relationship deepens, Teo’s life story – what little she knows of it – serves as the inspiration for Vivi to identify at last her personal path to artistic expression. Her highly successful installation, however, unwittingly pries off the stopper that has kept Teo’s tortured war-years experience bottled up for decades.
The story that emerges is not about ghettoes and concentration camps, but about a Nazi official who is sexually obsessed with a young Jewish dancer. This obsession at once saves Teo’s life and destroys it. As the details pour out, one might think there is not much Vivi can do but listen sympathetically. However, she makes a bold move designed to stoke the final embers of a long-suppressed flame that will soon be extinguished.
Fallenberg, an Ohio native and longtime Tel Aviv resident, won an American Library Association award for his debut novel, Light Fell (Soho Press, 2008). I did not read this book, but I did read Meir Shalev’s A Pigeon and A Boy, for which Fallenberg won a National Jewish Book Award for his magnificent Hebrew-to-English translation, and I also read his excellent translation of Ron Leshem’s Beaufort. Perhaps it is this background that has so sensitively attuned Fallenberg to the power of individual words. His fluid prose is carefully composed, deliberately chosen for a desired effect.
In describing Teo’s half-century of correspondence with his sister, the author writes that Teo in his old age is drawn increasingly “to their ability, so lost in the world now, to suggest so much, to tuck meanings into words, to crouch emotions behind mellifluous phrasing, to crunch a mountain of feelings into a mound of pure gold, without ever using an explicit, naked word.”
Some of the best passages depict Teo in motion, or recalling himself in motion. He relates to Vivi that he sees music in his mind’s eye “in colors and varying degrees of hot and cold.” Later, he confesses: “I wish I could go back to a time before language, when I was one with my surroundings. That business about color and heat ... when my body could absorb everything around me and turn it into something beautiful. When I could feel the bright pink of a falling leaf or the flow of the Vistula or the hiss of a radiator and I could express them through movement. When I could dance water, or heat, or even love.”
The novel’s lyrical quality keeps it from veering into sappiness at some points, and makes it an enjoyable read. Fallenberg’s love of language is evident, as is his appreciation for Tel Aviv: the “diamond-shaped fountain” outside the Suzanne Dellal Center, “the junkies and pimps near the Old Central Bus Station,” “old men selling skullcaps on overturned orange crates.”
His novel demonstrates that the Shoah is a shadowy character in that city as well, part and parcel of some of its residents but able to be transformed into a positive life force in the White City that never sleeps.