Meir Shalev: Israel’s Dictator-in-Writing
Interview by Marilyn Cooper
Although Americans may not immediately recognize his name, best-selling novelist Meir Shalev is one of Israel’s most beloved and celebrated authors. He is a man with deeply held convictions and opinions about both the art of writing and Israel. For one, he never mixes fiction with politics, a maxim that sets him apart from his fellow Israeli authors Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua and David Grossman. Instead, Shalev’s whimsical and satirical novels are grounded in the history and legends of pre-state Israel. Like Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, to whom he is often compared, Shalev’s work is characterized by its use of magical realism, unusual imagery and figurative language.
Shalev was born in 1948 and his life spans the history of Israel. He grew up on Nahalal, the first moshav (cooperative farming community) in Israel, where life was rustic and simple. Military leader Moshe Dayan had the only phone on Nahalal, and his daughter Yael remembers being sent by her father to tell Shalev’s father that his son had been safely born. Shalev speaks warmly of his grandmother and her influence on his writing: “She was a temperamental woman, but she was a great storyteller,” he says. “She was full of tales about the old days on the moshav.” These stories became the setting for Shalev’s groundbreaking first novel, The Blue Mountain.
The Blue Mountain was followed by Esau, Four Meals, Alone in the Desert, Fontanelle, A Pigeon and a Boy and his most recent work, Two She-Bears. Between novels, Shalev has written a number of children’s books, including the enormously popular Michael and the Monster of Jerusalem and My Father Always Embarrasses Me. Although Shalev is an avowedly secular man, he has authored two well-received books of commentary on the Bible, The Bible Now and Beginnings. Shalev saves his thoughts about politics for his column in the weekend edition of the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
Shalev is a scion of a notable Israeli literary dynasty. His father, Yitzhak Shalev, was a poet whose work reflected his Labor Zionist politics. His uncle, Mordechai Shalev, is a prominent literary scholar, and Mordechai’s children, Zeruya and Aner, are both well-known writers.
These days, Shalev divides his time between Jerusalem and a house he renovated in the Jezreel Valley, where he lives with his new partner, graphic designer Ayelet Sade. There, in addition to writing, he produces limoncello from the lemon tree in their garden which he distributes to friends and family. Shalev speaks with Moment about why he separates politics from fiction, the power of human memory and the nature of revenge.
You were born the same year as the State of Israel. How has Israel changed over the course of your life?
Israel and I were born in the same year, but I look much better! In my childhood, Israel was a much poorer country, and lifestyles were very modest. Politics was motivated by ideology and not solely by public relations, schemes and shticks, as is now the case. I remember an Israel that was in many ways Bolshevik. Many of the first generation of Israelis, the founders and pioneers, were socialists and communists; today we are more of a freethinking society. I recall a country that was more open geographically, less built up, with very few cars. Many people did not have refrigerators in their homes. I grew up without one in my home. People were highly interested in the education of their children, and the education system of Israel worked much better. Israelis had a far higher opinion of the army than they do today. Also, the reason for having an army was a great deal clearer to everyone than it currently is. Then, the army was there to protect the existence of Israel. Nowadays, many people, including me, think that the army is there mainly to protect the settlements.
Where do you see the situation with the settlements going in the future?
The Israeli public is moving more and more to the right. The war in 1967 may have destroyed Israel. We took a big bite that is now suffocating us. All Israel has done since 1967 is deal with aspects of the occupation. Israel has not been dealing with the things I feel it should deal with. With my political views, I am a minority in Israel.
Your fiction is not overtly political or concerned with current events. Has that been a conscious choice?
I do not write political propaganda in my novels. I don’t try to move my readers from one point of view to another. I don’t try to make eternal peace in the Middle East. In a novel, I may describe a political dispute between a father and a son, but that is to portray their relationship. I don’t like to use my art to promote my political views, and I don’t use my political ideas to promote my literature. I don’t like it when art and politics are mixed in that way.
Why is that?
It’s because of my personal background. My father was a poet and very right-wing. He wrote a lot of political poetry. When I was 12 or 13, I began to argue with him about this. I told him that his lyrical poetry was much better than his political poetry. I like poetry that is about memory, longing and love—not politics. Similarly, when I read the Bible, the character of David as a father to his son is much more interesting to me than as a king to his people. The character of Jacob as a husband to two wives who are sisters and his relationship with his 12 sons interests me more than Jacob as the father of the whole nation.
What is your response to Israeli novelists whose work is politicized?
Each person should write how and what he wants to write. I won’t tell them that they should write like me. If they want to write in a political way, they should do that. It is not for me, though.
Your most popular novel, A Pigeon and a Boy, has widely been interpreted as echoing the Zionist longing for a Jewish state. Was that your intention?
I don’t write political novels. When I have a political idea, I write about it in a newspaper. I started to write this novel after I finished remodeling a house I found in a little village. I had lived in Jerusalem for many years, but I didn’t like it very much. It’s a great place to visit, but not to live. I searched for many years for a place in the country. I found this little house and fell in love with it, and I believe the house fell in love with me as well. I decided I would write a book about a man who leaves his home and family. The book was prophetic, because ten years later I left Jerusalem and moved to the house in the country. That was the nucleus for the novel. The story of the pigeon joined later as a metaphor for loving and seeking home.
The idea of home can be very private; it doesn’t have to be nationalistic. Every person feels homesick from time to time for either a place where he grew up or where he knew his first love. I did not mean to portray the pigeon as a symbol of the Jewish people coming back to their home. These are ideas that have risen in the hearts of the readers. I have nothing against it, but that was not my intention.
You wrote your first novel, The Blue Mountain, at age 40, later in life than most novelists. What made you change direction in your career at that point?
Usually authors know that they want to become a writer by age five or six. As a child, more than anything, I loved to read but had no interest in writing. I wanted to become an entomologist. I started to write when I had my own talk show on Israeli television. I was successful but frustrated, because I felt that my work was not something I myself would appreciate. Shortly before turning 40, I quit my job. Everyone was very surprised and worried, but it was what I wanted. I would still like to become an entomologist someday, though!
The Blue Mountain is set on a moshav in the period shortly before the founding of Israel. You grew up on a moshav a generation after that. Did you feel nostalgia for this earlier time?
The book makes many readers nostalgic, but I would not want to live in the period of early Zionism because of the ideal of the collective over the individual. I am a very individualistic person. I remember on the moshav that my family worried about what other people would think of them and what they would say. Everyone watched each other to see if you were living according to the socialistic Zionist ideology. I didn’t like that. I liked the closeness to nature and the agricultural work.
Many people still living on moshavs were very angry with me when this book was published. When they read this book, Israelis living in cities and many Americans felt a longing for a period of time and a place that they had never actually experienced. But people living on moshavs and in small villages told me that I had exposed their ugly side and unfairly criticized their families and lifestyles.
What’s the role of memory in writing?
Memory is the source of all literature. It is the well from which you draw your materials. Novels are a mixture of things you remember and how you cultivate memory with your own imagination. In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, is the mother of the nine muses. So art was literally born from memory. Everyone has a treasury of memory within them. The great thing about human memory is that it is not at all reliable. Memory is very creative: it doesn’t just accumulate and store up; it creates stories that simply never happened. The process of making up stories begins in memory long before it emerges in writing.
I am a dictator in my writing. I tell my characters what to do…I am in control. The book is my kingdom.
Your most recent novel, Two She-Bears, evokes the biblical story of Elisha the prophet. What role does the Hebrew Bible play in your work?
I believe myself to be part of a very long dynasty of Hebrew writers that started 3,000 years ago. My novels, however, are not biblical stories. I do not retell biblical stories. Never. I use biblical themes from time to time, or biblical phrases because they are part of the Hebrew language.
The biblical story of Elisha is a brutal one in which 42 children are killed for mocking Elisha’s bald head. What drew you to it?
It’s a horrible story and a challenging one. Why does a prophet of God do such a thing, and why does God allow it? I used this story as the title of the book to make a strong comparison between the two incidents; it is bears in the Bible and a snake in my book, but in both instances children are being killed. In both cases, God did not interfere when God should have prevented this from happening. I think the Bible is trying to tell us that Elisha is not the right successor for Elijah, his teacher and mentor. Elijah was also a brutal person, but he was brutal in his holy wars, not against children. Elijah used his prophetic and divine forces to fight the war for Judaism in his time. Elisha used his power to take stupid and cruel revenge against little children who made fun of him. He didn’t have the morality needed for a man of God.
Why did you want to write a novel about revenge?
After writing books about love and death, memory, longing and passion—the full array of beautiful human emotions—I wanted to write a story about revenge. It’s a topic many people don’t want to hear about. They know it exists, but it lives in the dark bottom of our souls. It is a frightening emotion. Everyone has this monster in his or her soul, but they don’t want to feed it. Revenge is a strong emotion and a powerful drive. In this book, there are two big bloody revenges: one when a man kills his wife’s lover, and the other a blood revenge—what we in Israel call golat hadam, or “redemption of the blood” [equivalent to “an eye for an eye]. This is still practiced quite often in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean. I did not want to write about ideological revenges. These are real revenge killings.
How was Two She-Bears received in Israel?
What was the reaction to the ways in which the narrator, Ruta, justifies the murderers in her family? Ruta not only justifies the murderers; in one case, she actually wants to take part in the revenge. The book was positively received and sold well in Israel. There were critics who objected that the book was immoral. They said that I portrayed murderers in a positive way. That doesn’t mean that I believe people should take a gun and murder others when they feel angry.
What’s your response to this criticism?
I do not believe books should be moralistic and educational. It is my privilege and right to write a book like this and ask the reader to decide for himself: What would you do if you were in the situations described in this book? What do you think about my characters? Are their actions justified? Do you love them or hate them? Do you loathe them or want to meet them? That’s what I do as a reader. It’s the reader’s problem and job to decide what they think about a story, not mine. Murders happen, adultery happens, revenge happens—are we to write only moralistic stories? I don’t believe so. My obligation is to tell a good story in an artistic way. I am not a rabbi or a preacher. I am not even a teacher. I have no interest in educating the public. That is not my job.
You’ve made it very clear who you are not as a writer. How would you describe who you are?
I am a dictator in my writing. I tell my characters what to do. There are writers who say they talk to their characters and that their characters tell them who they are and what they want to do. That’s not me. I am in control. The book is my kingdom.