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Happy Countries Are All Alike; Every Unhappy Country Is Unhappy in Its Own Way

In Zeruya Shalev’s fearless new ‘The Remains of Love,’ lives on a kibbutz stand as a parable of Israel

Adam Kirsch
January 02, 2014
(Library of Congress)
(Library of Congress)

In America, discussion of Israeli fiction is usually dominated by the same few names that have been famous for decades—Grossman, Yehoshua, Oz. In Europe, however, one of the most celebrated Israeli novelists is Zeruya Shalev, whose books have been translated into dozens of languages and received all kinds of prizes. So far Shalev, who works as an editor at an Israeli publishing house, has yet to find the same kind of recognition here. Her last book, Thera, was released with little fanfare by Toby Press, a small but indispensable publisher dedicated to Jewish and Israeli writing.

The Remains of Love may be the novel that finally brings Shalev’s name to a wider American audience. Certainly it deserves to be: This is a powerful story, told with Shalev’s trademark emotional intensity, about that most universal of subjects, the relationship between parents and children. Like Philip Larkin, who observed that the family was a transmission belt for unhappiness—“Man hands on misery to man,/ It deepens like a coastal shelf”—Shalev is a kind of poet of familial dysfunction. She is fascinated by the way parents burden their children with too much love or too little, the way children can be maimed by their parents’ expectations and evasions. These are subjects that have been treated by countless writers, and they are highly exposed to the perils of cliché and sentimentality. But in Shalev’s fearless writing, the emotional temperature is raised so high that such dangers are burned away, leaving behind something elemental and irresistible.

The family whose unhappiness is chronicled in The Remains of Love is named Horowitz, an Israeli clan whose three generations live in Jerusalem and its suburbs. Anywhere else, three generations would represent just a small fraction of a country’s history. But in Israel, which celebrated its 65th birthday this year, it amounts to a national epic, beginning in the state’s prehistory. As a result, the Horowitzes’ story, for all its universality, cannot help reading like a kind of parable of Israel itself. And that parable begins, inevitably, in the kibbutz—the storied commune that is supposed to be the root of everything noble and heroic in the Israeli character.

For Hemda Horowitz, however, growing up on a kibbutz in the 1920s is a recipe for psychic devastation. When we first meet Hemda in the present day, she is an old woman on the verge of death—“already withered and wizened, as light as a ghost, and the slightest gust of wind would be enough to blow her from the bed.” With Hemda in this liminal state, her mind continually wanders back to the days of childhood, and her disoriented inner monologues transport us to the past. Even as her adult children, Dina and Avner, take her to the hospital and try to care for her, all she can think about are her long-dead parents. Adult life, Shalev suggests, is merely the aftermath of a childhood that never really ends.

The pattern of Hemda’s life was set, we discover, when she was an infant just learning to walk. As the first child born on her kibbutz, she embodied the hopes and the rigorous discipline of the whole Zionist project, and all the adults gathered around to see her take her first steps. When she did, however, their cheers and applause terrified Hemda, who fell down and refused to walk again for the next two years. It is a perfect fable: When superhuman expectations confront the all-too-human anxieties of a child, the result is catastrophe. Like Amos Oz, whose first book Where the Jackals Howl compared the first generation of Israeli pioneers to Jephthah, the biblical judge who sacrificed his own daughter, Shalev—who also grew up on a kibbutz—pays close attention to the price the dream exacts from the dreamers.

Hemda’s father eventually got her to walk by following the advice of a doctor, who said that the child simply needed to fear her father more than she feared walking. This meant a regimen of threats and beatings, delivered out of pure love and a sense that life in the Yishuv required extraordinary toughening. As a result, Hemda’s father grew into a magical and monstrous figure in her mind, both loving and terrifying, like the homeland itself. A different kind of child might have prospered in such a setting, but not Hemda, who was a dreamy child given to making up stories that her father disdained. “Hemdi, he would sigh, it’s a time for action, and the Jews have contributed enough stories to the world,” he chides her.

Yet telling stories, it turns out, is the defining habit of all the members of the Horowitz clan. This does not mean that they become writers, which would be a relatively benign fate. Rather, Hemda, and still more her children Dina and Avner, think about themselves and their lives in relentlessly mythic terms. They are adepts of magical thinking, always half-suspecting that their own deepest desires and fears have the power to shape reality. When her father dies on the same day that Dina is born, Hemda feels there must be a mystic connection between these events, that the new life has required the death of the old. As a result, she is permanently estranged from her daughter, unable to love the child who, in her mind, rendered her an orphan.

Dina, whom we meet as a woman in her forties, still bears the scars of this upbringing. She is the mother of a teenage daughter, Nitzan, whom she has smothered with affection, seeking to avoid the damage that had been done to her. But now that Nitzan is developing her own private life, beginning to withdraw from her mother’s orbit, Dina is left miserable and lonely, nearly suicidal. In response, she develops a magical idée fixe of her own: Only by adopting a child, she decides, can she reverse the curse of aging and render her life useful once more. Despite the outright opposition of her husband and daughter, Dina pursues the goal of adoption with fanatical singlemindedness. When she receives an email with a picture of the Russian orphan she might be able to adopt, she begins to look for omens. The boy is wearing a green striped shirt like the one her brother used to wear as a child: “Is this sign she has been waiting for?”

Meanwhile, the adult Avner is plunged into a more ordinary kind of midlife crisis: a failing marriage. His wife Shlomit, whom he married young as a way of escaping from his mother, now treats him with indifference and contempt. Even his work as a human rights lawyer, defending Palestinians and Bedouin against confiscations and expulsions, now seems useless to him. “You go along with the establishment script,” Avner’s protégé tells him, “pretending there’s some real legal process operating here, when you know it’s all a game and the results have been rigged.”

Like his sister, then, Avner invents a myth of salvation for himself. Visiting Hemda at the hospital one day, he overhears a tearful, loving exchange between a dying man and the woman who loves him. This is the kind of love that he lacks, that he has never known, and he becomes obsessed with the idea of tracking down the unknown woman: “Maybe he’ll see her again, maybe she’s left some document behind here, perhaps she’ll return to give him back his tears and he’ll be capable of eliciting from her mouth the end of the thread that will help him to follow their fate.” This quest eventually leads him to some surprising discoveries, which cast doubt on the romantic illusion Avner has invented about the dying man.

The Remains of Love, then, is the story of three adults in rebellion against maturity, sobriety, and clear thinking. “In our family we create myths,” Avner muses, “the consummate kibbutz society of his parents, his father’s lost Europe, he himself is the champion of the downtrodden, and now his sister has devised an ambitious and desperate myth of her own, reckons she can save a child and thereby save herself. … What do we know about small lives?”

The power of Shalev’s novel comes from the way she refuses to judge her creations for their self-delusions. In a sense, she even endorses it, by making her own prose—even in Philip Simpson’s slightly Anglicized translation—just as wayward and intense. Past and present, dialogue and narration, are not sharply set off from one another; the tale rushes onward in long paragraphs, bearing the reader with it. Hemda and Dina and Avner may act in crazy and self-defeating ways, but in the world they—and we—live in, passionate confusion is at least a sign of genuine engagement. It would be nice to believe that life can be lived carefully and reasonably, Shalev suggests, but that would be the biggest myth of all.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.