Feathers / Plumoj & Esperanto (7)

Beʾer, Haim. Feathers [Notsot]; translated from the Hebrew by Hillel Halkin. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press; Hanover: University Press of New England, 2004. xiii, 235 pp.

I finally pulled this book off the shelf and read the novel (10-15 February). I found two additional references to Esperanto, quoted in my previous post. Feathers (published in the original Hebrew in 1979), like several contemporary Jewish novels, uses Esperanto as nostalgia for lost utopian possibilities. But what about the novel itself?

My initial reaction was: why the National Yiddish Book Center named this one of the 100 greatest works of modern Jewish Literature eludes me. This is deemed a classic of Israeli literature, but it just could not hold my interest or attention most of the way through. Perhaps my inattention is my own fault, but I was just not motivated to care. Stylistically, the novel is marvelous, but still . . . You might think I would be more interested in a collection of eccentrics and crackpots, but I just couldn't care about this Jewish cohort in Jerusalem. Note, however,  . . .

There are two outstanding features I should point out, the second of which is more compelling to me. In all of the scenarios covered, from the war of independence to the Yom Kippur war, not limited to actual wars, there is the constant presence of death and funerals. The title itself suggests the fragility of Jewish life and dreams.

The second feature is the Jewish gift for scorn and sarcasm. Here is one characteristic passage that also pertains to philosophy, autodidacts, utopians, and cranks:
"Now that you are a father yourself, how can you rationally explain such craziness?" How a boy who lacked nothing, whose teachers were men of such stature that some eventually became university lecturers, whose friends came from the very best of houses--how such a boy could have fallen for a shiftless low-life Leder was more than she could comprehend.

Since the conversation annoyed me, I replied that no one, not even I could know what had gone on in my mind and soul as a child. Nevertheless, I added, I believed that Leder was in his own fashion a philosopher, though an autodidact of course, and that my imagination had been fired by the world of utopian thought he had opened up to me.

My mother sarcastically repeated my big words and declared that even though she had no schooling and had never even been able to attend the Saturday night lectures at the community center, she knew enough to understand the difference between Leder and a philosopher.

"We're both adults now," she went on as we crossed the busy Jerusalem-Jericho road, "and it won't hurt you to hear the truth for once." She blamed Leder for my having dropped out of school. "You went to college thinking that a philosophy department was a lot of wise men sitting around with laurel wreathes on their heads and discussing Kant and Spinoza while solving the problems of the universe with hot air." [p. 42]
Various ideological factions in the Jewish community of the historical periods covered are mentioned: Zionists, anti-Zionists, Bolsheviks, rightists, Europe-oriented monarchists. The key figure is Mordecai Leder, disciple of Karl Popper-Lynkeus and leader of the Nutrition Army, dedicated to bringing the utopian project of minimal consumption into being.

This might be a fluke of my attentiveness, but I finally got absorbed in the novel with the death of Joseph Stalin. The anti-communist insults hurled at the Jewish Bolshies in Jerusalem are hilarious.

Leder becomes disillusioned with peaceful persuasion when Albert Schweitzer declines his invitation to become titular head of the movement, picks up a gun at the moment when Israeli right-wingers riot in protest of Israel's reparations deal with Germany, gets arrested, and goes downhill from there. The narrator's life with Leder ends in the 1950s, but the connection comes back to him in the final chapter when burying the dead from the Yom Kippur war.

So, despite my initial indifference, there appears to be something to be gleaned from this tale, the generalities if not the specifics: the craziness of dreamers, or perhaps the futility of all dreams, the discrepancy between people's self-conception and their lives, the interweaving of humor and tragedy, the evanescence of Jewish and all human life, the absorption and disappearance of the world one once lived, disorientation and memory, feathers scattered from living beings and blown all about, signalling the disruption of a fleeting existence.

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