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Gabriela Avigur-Rotem’s Heatwave and Crazy Birds

Central Question: Can all of Jewish history fit within a novel about everyday life?

Gabriela Avigur-Rotem’s Heatwave and Crazy Birds

Michael Casper
17 Snaps

Novels propelled by longing require little in the way of plot. Much of Heatwave and Crazy Birds takes place squarely in a woman’s thoughts, turning over details of lonely days in the desert; of the habits of birds in a garden; of historical personages and dead family members who linger, as it were, with equal screen time. But Gabriela Avigur-Rotem’s use of commas and em-dashes where sentences typically achieve closure lends the woman’s inner life a quivering sense of urgency, and as the woman’s place in the world slowly emerges—Loya is the daughter of a Czech-born archaeologist who returns to Israel to inherit a house after years of self-imposed exile—that urgency extends to the story line, which eventually collapses in on itself with the intensity of a whodunit.

One of the wonderful things about this novel is the way it can be both compulsively observant and spatially expansive. Every once in a while it seems as though someone has slit the book’s tires, letting descriptions stream unimpeded out of depressurized paragraphs. These are often dark, unrequitable readings of the suburban landscape that recall Anne Sexton: a handbag “­vomits” its contents; a group of women with cosmetic masks looks frightening, “like the busts of six Roman emperors”; a keyhole is “like a little girl cut out of darkness.”

But Avigur-Rotem is at her best when she celebrates how the linguistic and cultural diversity of Jewish history, from all of its continents and millennia and milieus, inhabits the Israeli mind-share. For her, recollections, events, and utterances are rooted in a vision of the Jewish and Levantine past that, unlike the teleological narrative favored in popular Israeli myth, comes across whorled. Cab drivers are in conversation with the Canaanites, strawberry pickers with the prophets, cops with Slavs. A visit to the seaside finds it peopled by Phoenicians. A bird chirps in Spanish. “Hebrew sounds like Turkish, English like ancient Scottish,” she writes. While this multiplicity can be isolating to the narrator, the overall effect is that people speak in the unifying tongue of historical experience.

The novel’s characters help move this line of thinking along. Both a Holocaust survivor and a historian are able to recall that Baruch Goldstein, a West Bank settler who opened fire in a Hebron mosque in 1994, has the same name as someone who smuggled arms into the Vilna ghetto during World War II. A childhood scene at a Passover seder focuses on a modern history of the Jews, proposed (and dated and annotated) by Loya’s father in response to her question about whether her mother is still alive. The presence and the frequent invocation of historians, along with such charged settings as Prague and Venice (site of the first ghetto, est. 1516), signal a feedback effect whereby Jewish historiography itself, as much as the actual procession of past events, is an internalized, ritualized part of the characters’ lives. These correlations are suggestive to the reader, but contribute to the narrator’s increasing sense of unease as she seeks—despite resistance from acquaintances and from the security state—to answer simple questions about her family’s past and to cross-check childhood memories.

Heatwave and Crazy Birds is Avigur-Rotem’s Rosetta stone, her key to aligning the disparate strands of influence that constitute the Israeli sense of self. It works by giving all peoples of the region, including the hated Romans and Jewish ghetto police kapos, equal rights to a vibrant afterlife. A passage from the father’s Hebrew-language diary from the Terezin concentration camp, found by Loya under the false bottom of a drawer, speaks to this riddle of decentered history. In describing a friend who returned from Palestine only to get arrested, the diarist observes: “An interesting psychological process: people ‘cross over’ walls by thinking of their past or their future. In the present—‘überleben’—they survive.”                

Author’s place of birth: Buenos Aires; Author’s day job: editor at a publishing house; P­rotagonist’s place of birth: Venice; Protagonist’s profession: flight attendant; Approximate number of pages in novel that consist of diary entries: forty-seven; Novel’s original language: Hebrew; Novel’s translator: Dalya Bilu; Sentence from novel that sounds most like the title of an indie rock album: “Horses of the heart, go back to your stables”; Representative passage: “So. Now my clothes hang next to yours, black silk blouses next your Marlboro-Man checked shirts, did you want to be like him?—Perhaps—in any case you deserved to look like him, you, who were a Corvus albus, a white crow, odd man out—how easy to say to a closet full of empty shirts—”

Michael Casper

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