Beginning Meir Shalev’s latest novel “Two She-Bears” (Pantheon) is like entering a room in the middle of a conversation. The narrative goes forward and back in time, with different strands of the story unfolding alongside each other, sometimes colliding.
The award-winning Israeli novelist tells The Jewish Week that “human memory is jumpy, not continuous.” Details can change, depending on who’s telling and who’s listening. “Remembering,” he says, “is a creative act.” It’s no surprise to hear that he’s drawn to Impressionist painting.
The novel is set on a moshava, or farming village, in Israel, from the 1930s on. It’s a tale of Israel’s pioneers, of love, loss and loyalty, murder and blood revenge that reverberates over generations. Underlining the dark events is the notion that storytelling matters.
This is Shalev’s eighth novel — he’s also the author of children’s books, works of nonfiction related to the Bible and a memoir — and for the first time, his narrator is a woman, a high school teacher named Ruta Tavori, who lives on a moshava, and like Shalev is a secular scholar of the Bible. “She came out resembling me more than any of my male narrators,” he says.
She’s a woman of strong intuitions and opinions who is at times very funny. Her voice shifts, from describing scenes and events, to being interviewed by a younger woman doing research on the history of the Yishuv, to writing stories for her child.
Ruta, named for her grandmother Ruth, also called Ruta, tells her interviewer, “There are stories that I tell and stories that I write, and stories that I show and stories that I don’t, and they are very different.” She shares some of the most intimate details of her life, that she hasn’t shared before, with this stranger.
One of the central stories, of a man on the farming collective who kills his wife’s lover and covers it up as a suicide, while the moshava knows the truth and goes along with him, is based on a true story he heard. But the embellishment is from his imagination. In the novel, the killer is Ruta’s grandfather, who is also the loving and generous farmer who raises her and her brother.
In doing research for the novel, Shalev met with police officers, sharpshooters and a professional hit man “to help me learn things I don’t know about assassinations.” He believes that most ordinary people have had flashes of revenge fantasies, that “this exists in every soul in one way or another.” The novel also delves into atonement and forgiveness.
Shalev writes with lyricism, describing village life, the landscape the pioneers and their descendants know so well, with wadis, winding paths through hills and hidden rocky places along the seashore where cyclamen bloom early. His prose is laced with biblical allusions and puns, and the talented translator Stuart Schoffman brings the English reader into those wordplays.
The title, “Two She-Bears,” “Shtayim Dubim” in Hebrew, comes from the brutal revenge tale about the biblical Elisha, when two she-bears emerge from the woods and slaughter 42 children. Schoffman explains in an email that the biblical phrase is strange in Hebrew as shtayim is feminine and dubim masculine. “This apparent ‘mistake’ is mentioned in the novel, and making it clear in English is one of many such challenges for the translator,” he writes.
“I feel that as a writer I am a small part in a long chain of Hebrew writers that starts in the Bible,” Shalev says. “When you write in the Hebrew language, every word you use is loaded with meaning and history and conflicts and belief and spirituality, sometimes you’re not aware of it.”
Shalev is the son of Yitzhak Shalev, a secular biblical scholar who inspired Meir’s love of the text. He grew up in Nahalal, the first moshav in Israel, where Moshe Dayan’s family also lived. Yael Dayan says that since hers was the only family with a telephone, she was the one who ran to tell Yitzhak Shalev the news of his son’s birth.
The author says that as a child, he was small and wore glasses, and most often stayed back with the women of the family when the men went out to the fields. He was particularly close with his grandmother, as he was the first grandson. He remembers those days warmly when he was like a fly on the wall, listening to their stories. He has come to feel very natural and at ease in the company of women.
While we are speaking on a recent Sunday morning in the lobby of the Manhattan hotel where he is staying, a cleaning person lugging a vacuum cleaner gets to work very close to us, and an otherwise quiet space is filled with the hum of the machine. I loved Shalev’s memoir, “My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner,” and we joke that her spirit seems to hover.
Shalev now lives in Jerusalem and in the north, not far from Nahalal, where he enjoys gardening. In fact, he is working on a book about his garden, not about the art of gardening per se, but about the writer in his garden. As a child, he thought he wanted to become an entomologist — he loves insects and was very pleased that his first novel, “Blue Mountain,” won the literary prize of the Entomological Society of Israel.
He published “Blue Mountain” at age 40, after a career in television, where he had his own talk show. He left that world, gambling that since he loved language, he could put words together to create a novel. By then, he had already published several children’s books.
When he works on a novel with a complex structure like this one, he writes the names of the scenes on index cards, spreads them on the floor, and then walks around them to get “a bird’s eye view of the story.”
He’s a novelist, he says, who keeps his politics out of his fiction. He’s able to express his left-leaning political and cultural views in a weekly column in the Israeli daily newspaper, Yedioth Achronot.
Shalev’s family is a treasure of stories and good storytellers. “Telling a writer a good story,” he says, “is like hugging a pickpocket. He will steal it from you.”