This is a collection of stories set in Israel about Jews and Arabs. Viola Wein writes about shattered, paradoxical fortunes – about life, you could say. But her characters’ lives do not come together to form a rational plot with a literary foundation, and there is no proper message to provide at least the semblance of a resolution. You can stare into these stories and fail to perceive any conclusive facts, except that we are born, we suffer, and then our children are born, to suffer in the same way. Here we find tales about egotistical, selfish people, such as the Father in Rachmunes, and about people who devote their entire lives to the memory of the dead, like Margalit in Ammophila arenaria. But while Margalit’s son suffered a cruel death at the hands of Palestinian terrorists, the fate of the young Palestinian boy Fathi in The Sacrifice takes him straight to a suicide bomber squad. And what about the gay transvestite Israeli in The Paramedic? There is no “rationale” in this story either. The eponymous paramedic and his friends don’t fit in anywhere, and in the same way their wish to have a child, though ultimately fulfilled, can never rely on being socially accepted. The life of Yossi, whose face has been half eaten away by a strange skin disease, already seems to have lost all trace of salvatory reason and ends in suicide.In these stories Israel is a place of extreme experiences, not just because of civil war. Many of the most varied human fates have reached their culmination there. Each of the protagonists has his five minutes to tell his own personal truth, but these truths cannot be harmonised; there is no single model for them, they can only be voiced, presented to others in the hope of some understanding, or at least the rachmunes of the title – it is the Hebrew word for compassion.
- Jerzy Jarzębski
Viola Wein (b. 1946) is a piano teacher, translator and writer. She left Poland for Israel in 1968. She has worked as a piano teacher at a conservatory, and as an official and translator at the Yad Vashem Memorial Institute. Her first work of fiction appeared in 1996 under the title Misalliance (also published in Hebrew) and describes the history of a Jewish family forced to emigrate from Poland in 1968.
I’m walking to the student theatre, which is not far from my house. The show begins at eight, and I’m on time. I’ve always been like that, well trained by my parents, who say “punctuality is a trait of kings”. You had to turn up at nursery school at eight o’clock on the dot – Mrs Jaffa, the teacher, didn’t like children arriving late, because it ruined the order of the day from the outset. First the boys went off to their areas to play with balls, hammers and building bricks, while the little girls went to their dolls’ houses. Then there was an hour for everyone to look at books and tell fairytales, and next came free time in the playground. I was good at kicking the ball and often shot it into the funny little red-and-blue plastic goal, but I preferred to stay with the girls in their dollies’ corner. I used to sit there quietly in the background, feeling myself being tickled, hugged and stroked on the head by their tiny hands, as if I were Ruti Smartuti’s doll who had her hair styled this way and that, was always being changed into different dresses, and was fully surrounded by constant care. Mrs Jaffa used to laugh as she told my mother I often fell asleep in the dollies’ corner so sweetly that it was a pity to wake me for dinner.
It’s the two hundredth night of the show, so afterwards we’re going to a bar to celebrate. We deserve it – we’ve been working hard. Ofer joins me on the way and starts complaining.
“That bitch has come up with another stupid story.”
“What? Isn’t she moving out?”
“Not for another month.”
Pity I’ll have to keep suffering away at my parents’ place. I was glad I’d be living with Ofer soon, nearer to the centre of Tel Aviv. His flatmate was supposed to be moving out ages ago. But right now I’m much sorrier I left the house with my make-up done. It’s very hot, and there’s a sticky wind from the sea mixed with car fumes drilling up my nose into my brain. I’m starting to sweat and soon it’ll get all smudged. But even so I look better than Florentin, the district we’re going through. The contours of the scruffy houses are quivering in the hot air like an old woman’s hands. And they look just as repulsive, with their plaster covered in wrinkles, multi-coloured blotches and the strange bulges formed by their little iron balconies, built according to the tenants’ whims. I can see Ofer’s trying to tell me something, but I can’t hear him. A horrific explosion throws us onto the pavement. There’s silence amid a white cloud of dust. I check to see if the warm lump next to me is Ofer. Thank God it is! There’s a roaring in my ears, and I feel as if I’d be quite happy to drop off to sleep now. But suddenly the dust that’s all around us spits a great tongue of fire into the sky. The hot air is hissing, howling, emitting squeals, screams and wails, the groans of the wounded and the sirens of ambulances. I can feel a wet weight on my back. I cast it off as I stand up, and see it is an arm torn off at the elbow. There’s a Casio watch on the wrist with a black face. It’s a man’s hand. I am a reserve paramedic and must get moving, to help the wounded, but Ofer is still lying curled in an embryo position and I can’t leave him like that. I start looking for the owner of the arm, and see that without meaning to I have thrown it off myself and onto Ofer, who has seized onto it and is clutching it tight beneath his chin. A wailing ambulance brakes next to us with a squeal. I lift up Ofer, along with someone’s torn-off forearm. He looks like a big black baby, howling at the top of his voice because someone’s trying to take away his favourite teddy. A Red Star of David worker shouts from inside the ambulance:
“Stand back, lady, leave him to us, we’ll take the necessary care of him, there’s no room in the ambulance!”
“I’m an army paramedic and I can help on the way to the hospital!” I shout back.
“Fuck off, pansy, you filthy queer with your AIDS. I told you we can manage!”
On the news they said that a suicide bomber dressed as an Israeli soldier had been standing in the queue at a bus stop. Seven people were killed and about a hundred wounded. This time the effect was bigger, because a double-length bus had just driven up, what’s known as a concertina.
Ofer was in hospital for another twenty-four hours, complaining of a roaring sound in his ears. The admissions doctor diagnosed nervous shock and prescribed him some tranquillisers. He told me we should put our names down for group therapy, which is subsidised by the state for life. Besides meetings, the programme includes tourist outings, contact with a psychologist and a social worker, yoga, group singing and dancing, a dining room at the soldiers’ home – in general, permanent welfare from the Ministry of Security and monthly financial aid.
There are a lot of these groups dispersed all over Israel, because you never know what can happen after a shock like that. Sometimes the images come back to you twenty years later, when you are completely unprepared for them.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones