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Netivot, the heart of everything
By Naama Gershy
Tags: Naama Gershy, Shimon Adaf 
In depicting the impoverished Negev where his heroine grows up in the 1980s, Shimon Adaf presents a Netivot that is rich and alive. It is only when she moves to Tel Aviv that Ori's existence becomes flat, and the novel too loses some of its life

Panim Tzruvei Hama (Sunburnt Faces), by Shimon Adaf,
Am Oved Publishing (Hebrew) 479 pages, NIS 88

After reading Shimon Adaf's latest novel, I was reminded of a scene from the movie "Mary Poppins." The English nanny takes the kids to the park, and they go on all the familiar rides, but then Mary Poppins takes them to a section where there are colorful chalk drawings on the sidewalk. With one small skip, they enter a drawing, and find themselves in a wonderland where childhood fantasies are fulfilled and the colors are richer and more varied than in real life. When contrasted with the new world that the drawing opens up to the children, the familiar park where they had romped a moment before suddenly seems dull and boring.

Adaf tells the tale of one character during two parts of her life, in childhood and as an adult. In the first section, 12-year-old Ori, from Netivot, comes home from school frightened, and with a deep gash on her forehead. For two months she seems to have lost the ability to speak, but then one night, she has a divine revelation as she sits in the living room in front of the TV, and her speech returns. And something else happens to her as well: The revelation wakes her up and sends her to rediscover her world -- her family, her friends and the library, where she encounters literature with which she had no previous contact.
Both the loss of speech and the epiphany ?(for which the author offers no rational explanation?) turn Ori from a somewhat dull child who doesn't pay much attention to what's going on around her into a particularly sensitive observer and a discriminating recorder of her immediate surroundings.

"After the pouring rain that flooded the days of Hanukkah, the air cleared," Adaf writes. "On the way to the psychologist, the intoxicating scent of the mud assaulted her nostrils. At every step, various birds -- sparrow and warbler and swallow -- pulled at her heart. No longer did she see them as twittering grayish bundles of feathers. Every bird existed in its uniqueness: each species, each detail, stood apart.... A different perspective took root within her, giving her the power to distinguish each and every bird: the beadiness of the eyes, the width of the beak, the shine of the feathers, its shading."

The epiphany informs Ori's growing-up process, the beginning of her sexual maturation, the end of her innocent and carefree childhood, and her being pushed almost by force into the adult world because of family troubles and her mother's illness. Her special vision exposes readers to the wonderful world of growing up in the impoverished Negev town of Netivot in the 1980s, to family relationships, to struggles at school, and to other aspects of life in the town.

After her vision, Ori becomes more aware and understanding of the financial distress of Netivot's residents, of her parents' daily struggle for existence, and of the fear of layoffs. She begins looking at her surroundings in a more involved and compassionate manner:

"Her father sat in the yard, sipping from his coffee cup. These were his sweet hours, when he could still take advantage of the calm of their home before going out to his evening shift. She saw the nape of his neck, tense, and his hand touching the corner of his mouth. For more than half a year now, he was no longer smoking on Shabbat, and as Shabbat came to a close, as his craving became more keen, he would chew a toothpick between his teeth, sometimes locking his fingers onto it and making suckling motions. She urged herself to stop looking at him, lest he feel her stare, and the serenity he obtained through hard work be shattered."

Adaf, a 36-year-old poet and writer who grew up in Sderot, succeeds in returning to childhood and making it realistic and alive. His beautiful descriptions turn Netivot from a location in "the periphery" to a breathing city, rich in all the shades of the rainbow that grace other places as well. Adaf does not view the hinterlands through the lens of deprivation or absence, via the gaps between outlying areas and the country's center. Poverty and distress do appear, as seen through Ori's eyes, but only as part of the bustling, fascinating fabric of life. Ori's eyes, which can discern the smallest details and see beyond language and the commonly accepted divisions in society, allow the readers to see Netivot in such high resolution that for a moment it seems like the center of gravity, the heart of everything, the place where the important things happen.

Similarly, the beliefs shared by the people around her, like their faith in the holiness of the miracle worker called the "Baba Sali," are not described from a distance -- as folklore, as history -- but as existing right now, as something that influences what takes place because of the fact they are part of a living community shared by people who live their lives around those beliefs.

Cuts her ties

In the book's second half, we meet Ori the adult. She lives in Tel Aviv, is married to a computer specialist, has a 4-year-old girl, and writes successful children's books. Ori the adult has left Netivot, turning her back in anger on the town and the people who live there, including her family, with which she has cut her ties. From here on, the story is told from her perspective, as it describes the process of her withdrawal from her life, from her commitments and from her husband and child, and her gradual immersion into the world of fantasy and literature.

Ori strips off her adult life like so many extra layers and goes back to being a girl of no specific age who tells stories and possesses wonderful powers, including the ability to expose truth, to get to the heart of the matter. But in the description of Ori's adult life, something happens to the power of Adaf's tale. The characters become dull stereotypes, merely carrying out their preordained roles, creating a world that seems trapped in a blurred bubble, almost drained of color.

Adaf describes present-day central Tel Aviv -- Meir Park, the cafes, the bookstores; even the Second Lebanon War gets a mention. But his descriptions slide too easily into pre-fab molds, and he fails to breathe new life into them. Ori continues to study her surroundings and describe them, but barrier blurs the colors and conceals the gentle interactions that could give life to such depictions. Despite the immediacy of the present, the perspective remains distant, very different from that of Ori as a girl.

Contemplating her relationship with her husband, Barak, Ori thinks: "What else? How infinite is a person's life once we've shown interest in him, and how trivial.... Where is the person who is Barak, where? Every other Israeli guy has the same memories, the same exact used past. There's nothing to gain by this breakdown, the division into isolated incidents." Ori's husband, like her daughter, father and sister, is faceless, lacking the unique qualities that could turn him into a living, human character.

It's interesting to compare the description of Ori's father in the book's first part, to his portrayal in the second half. In the earlier section, Adaf writes: "And their father -- she never understood how hard it was for Yaakov Elhayani. After his wife died, the factory allowed him to work morning shifts only. And he wandered around the house as though he were abandoned and his children were erased from his memory, or the very house was nothing but a memory residing between the walls, and in the rooms and the hallways, and he was living inside it, a memory in which children live but separate from him, two layers of reality that were placed directly on top of each other, and no one but them noticed how far apart they were, what purgatory separated them."

The sensitive attention to detail that characterized the earlier section here becomes more general, with the details squeezed into a clear shape that matches the familiar description of neglectful fathers. Ya'akov's unique character himself seems to disappear, turning into a symbol of the concept of neglect.

The fascinating childhood years described in the book's beginning turn into familiar themes from the personal narrative, meant to justify or explain the adult life. Unlike the people of Netivot, who were allowed to choose and shape their own lives (within the limitations by which they were bound, of course), the adult Ori who lives in Tel Aviv is transformed into someone living in utter dependence on her past. She is nourished by her childhood and the world of fantasy and does not manage to create an independent adult world of her own. Modern-day Tel Aviv, as Adaf describes it through Ori's eyes, is missing a reality and vitality of it own. The transition to the adult world, in the present, is similar to the moment in which one leaves the land of fantasy, the moment when the hero comes home and discovers he has no home to return to, or that his home is unstable and too small, that it by no means measures up to the wonderful, exciting places he has just visited. The hero waits to be called once more, to go out on the next adventure.

The second part of the book turns into a wandering search for the hidden door that will allow the heroine (and the readers) to leave the boring present-day world. But there is no such magic door, not in the many quotes from literature nor in the fantasy chapters that Ori writes at the end of the book. It may be that the world of fantasy needs a real world from which to derive its power, and when Ori's real world is so paltry and her character as an adult is so pale, the world of fantasy also appears detached, unconnected to the story; it doesn't enrich the tale. Ori's character as an adult is not strong enough to carry the burden of the journey in the wake of her epiphany. She does not manage to create the same gripping storytelling power she had as a girl, and by the end of the book it is no longer strong enough to carry her readers along.

Naama Gershy's articles and poems have been published in the journals Mitaam and Hakivun Mizrah.

Haaretz Books, July 2008
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