“Our family still makes borscht...”
The Folio publishing house introduced to the Ukrainian reader for the first time one of the most famous and globally published Israeli writers, Meir Shalev, whose novel My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner has appeared in the series “Map of the World,” translated by Volodymyr Verkhovnia.
The writer’s great sense of style, unusual imagery, humor and self-irony, impeccable plot designs and high intelligence won my heart long ago. And I know I am not alone.
Shalev was a guest of the Book Arsenal festival, and I am grateful to the Embassy of Israel in Ukraine for the opportunity to communicate with him.
THE FIRST UKRAINIAN IMPRESSIONS
My dear Mr. Shalev, let me greet you in Ukraine. Your books are widely known in the world, and have been released in Russian translations many times. Now is the first time that a book of yours reached the Ukrainian reader. What is your opinion of this translation, and how did you find working with the Ukrainian book market?
“I cannot, unfortunately, evaluate the quality of the Ukrainian translation. Apart from Hebrew, I know only English, and do not speak other foreign languages. Given that the publisher was interested and published my book, I trust that he made every effort to ensure that the translation was a high-quality one. As for the Ukrainian book market, I flew to Ukraine for the first time to visit the Book Arsenal, and I really liked the location. It is a very beautiful building. I was to book fairs and festivals all over the world, but nowhere had seen so comfortably organized space, or such a beautiful children’s section, because I also write children’s books. I was impressed by the Book Arsenal’s children’s playgrounds, interactive books and exhibitions. This is one of the most beautiful and best-organized festivals.”
LITERATURE AND FAMILY AFFAIRS
I read your novel The Blue Mountain for the first time, and my feelings from it and its structure, its construction of images and thoughts have brought to my mind a comparison with my favorite writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
“I am pleased.”
A writer usually, like any creative individual, starts with themselves, describing the events of their life, what happened to them. What I know about you contradicts this norm. You are not engaged in agriculture, are absolutely secular, do not really observe all the rituals. Where do these contradictions come from: the image of the Land of Israel itself or from your worldview?
“I just invent some stories, they are fruits of my imagination. I also use for my narrative some family stories. Yes, I am not a farmer, but my entire maternal family were farmers and have stayed in business. I came down to their farm during every school vacation when I was a child. I am well aware of what farming was like 50 years ago. My greatest inspiration is the narration talent in our family, which was passed on in my mother’s line. All my paternal family members were intellectuals, urbanites, critics, scholars of literature, writers, and researchers. Meanwhile, my mother’s family, when they gathered at the farm, especially women, they preserved fruits, salted cucumbers, and told some stories all the time, while I sat and listened. When I began to write, fragments of these stories surfaced in my mind, as they had gotten deeply rooted in memory, and they were of use to me.”
Being the son of a famous person and working in the same line is very difficult, because your father was a famous Israeli writer. Did it help or hamper you? How did you manage to avoid unconscious pressure?
“Father did not hamper me, rather, he helped, because he told me: ‘write, write,’ whereas at that time, I was not even going to start writing. I read a lot and loved books. Father suggested that I try my hand. However, I was fascinated by something completely different, and when I finally wished to write, I first published two children’s books at 35, and my first ‘adult’ publication appeared when I was 40. It was too late to either benefit from the glory of my father or worry about it somehow. My father published only one novel, but it was a very successful one. I think that I have my own style, so the influence of my father as a writer on me and my style is virtually negligible.”
FROM WORD COOKERY TO EVERYDAY GIMMICKS
An integral part of your style is describing food, which in Israel is a kind of “religion,” or as I put it, a “national entertainment.” I remember the description of the process of eating olives by the grandfather in The Blue Mountain, I also remember the simple meal which the grandmother instantly cooked in A Pigeon and a Boy. This magic of food is present in every work of yours. And what does this cooking atmosphere mean for you?
“What is happening in Israel with food and around food is exaggerated and somewhat even vulgar. We have endless cooking shows, restaurant cuisine, high cuisine, dishes from the chef. I love the food that is cooked at home. There are several ‘secret’ recipes that came to me from my mom and aunt. I was married to a woman from the Sephardic community, her family had come from Bulgaria. The Bulgarian cuisine is also extremely interesting, being half Turkish and half Greek. Homemade food has a soul. I describe it in my novels. Frankly speaking, my grandmothers did not cook very well. It was even outright bad in the paternal line. Meanwhile, my favorite Grandma Tonya cooked well, but there was nothing special about it. With each new generation, we perfect the culinary arts. My son cooks better than me and my wife, my brother cooks better than mom. There is still potential for development, so the next generation will surprise us with their culinary skills.”
LITERATURE AND JOURNALISM
You devoted yourself to literary work and at the same time became a prominent columnist for a famous publication. Where, in your opinion, is the watershed between journalism and literature?
“The watershed runs exclusively between midnight on Wednesday and morning on Thursday. I am not a journalist, I do not run about, I do not look for news, I work at home as a columnist, and when the editor calls me: ‘Go there, look at it, and tell about your impressions,’ I say ‘No.’ True journalism has nothing to do with reality. I sit down to write a column on Thursday morning, I submit it the same evening, and it appears in the newspaper on Friday morning. After that, I forget about journalism and devote myself to literature until next Thursday.”
Do you feel that all the literary genres that exist today, with all their diversity, are laid down in the Ancient Book?
“All world literature began with the Bible and Greek mythology, as the story of the voyage of Odysseus is very widely used in modern literature. But speaking of the Old Testament, I love it, because it does not delve into psychology. It is just stories, a great text. For example, look at the story of Jacob and Rachel. He first saw Rachel and wept. Were a modern author to write about this, they would have typed a whole chapter about what happened, what he thought, how and who perceived it. And here, it is just one sentence: ‘Jacob saw her and wept.’ And the reader should think: why? Millions of beautiful women were around for centuries throughout history, but no one walked and wept in the streets because of them. That is, this is a little discovery that the reader has to make on their own. The Bible does not delve into psychology as it tells its story.”
A BIT OF ACTION FOR A SEDENTARY WORKER
Are you still a brave biker who takes part in various competitions?
“I have never been a biker, I like to drive a motorcycle and can do it, but I have never competed. I did participate in an SUV rally, though. I am a very good driver and still go to the desert with my friends, staying there for the night. It was while driving an SUV that I participated in competitions. But it took a lot of time, technical training was needed. I decided that I could be either a driver or a writer. I had to leave the races. I did not do this to get some experience, it is my hobby.”
ATTEMPTING TO DRAW PARALLELS
For me, the rise of Israel and how it lives today is a very colorful and vivid example of how individual people can build their own country, provided they are actively optimistic. Does the hybrid war in Ukraine bring to mind some sort of comparison with your country somehow?
“Optimism is indeed our immense feature. After so many years of scattering, pogroms, and expulsions, we have remained alive. This is already a sufficient reason for optimism. I am not familiar enough with the political situation in Ukraine to analyze it, but I can give one piece of advice, based on the Israeli experience: you are very fortunate that there is no religious component in your conflict. But judging by what I have seen – even if this is limited to the space of the Book Arsenal – your country is quite self-sufficient and self-identified.”
Do you see a common future, some more cooperation? Will you come to the nearest book fairs in Ukraine?
“If they translate more of my works, I will be glad. But I would prefer that the next translation be The Four Meals, because it is a romantic, gentle, meaningful book. And immediately after it, I would like to see Two She-Bears translated, just for the sake of contrast, because it is tough, rough, and completely different. I will be pleased to come and launch each new translated book. There are only two conditions – I will come in the summer, because the winter is very cold. And secondly, I want to be treated to a borscht meal. (Laughs.) Our family still makes borscht.”