Ever heard of Vladimir Sorokin?
A small group of teenage girls peered into the window of the Steimatzky bookstore on Tel Aviv's Sheinkin Street. But what attracted them more than the bright red of the book cover was the identity of its author. Yair Lapid is the author of Arba Giborim Sheli ("My Four Heroes") and he is the girls' hero, but not everyone's.
Not far away from there, with three silver nose rings in his nostrils, 21-year-old Kogan was roaming the first floor of a bookstore on Allenby Street. The young man, who immigrated to Israel from Kazakhstan four years ago, cannot allow himself to buy even one of the books he caressed sensuously, even though he would have liked them all.
With the image of the red book cover from the Steimatzky store etched in our memory, we asked him if he also wants to read Yair Lapid's book. After a brief silence, Kogan answered politely: "Who is Yair Lapid?"
Upon hearing the answer, he lost what was left of his interest. "I read other books," he stated. "Now I like Viktor Pelevin and Sorokin; they write about fanciful things, there's something absurd about their writing." This conversation took place in the Don Quixote bookstore, a big favorite of Russian speakers, and it epitomizes the difference between the two nearby bookstores.
Kogan, who already knows the Hebrew slang to describe the Russian writers' works, has no idea who Yair Lapid is and there is no way the latter will become a cultural icon for him. Nor, at the moment, is Lapid likely to become an icon for Russian speakers as a whole.
"He's too establishment," explains Igor Silberman, a journalist who immigrated to Israel 18 years ago and is now a salesman at Don Quixote; "and besides, with Lapid everything is a play on words, not on the conceptual level; we came with our own baggage. We have other symbols."
Vladimir Sorokin, for example, they understand completely. Silberman and the store's owner, Nela Rosenberg, who immigrated to Israel from the Urals in 1990, say that in his latest book he describes modern times that are reminiscent of the days of Ivan the Terrible. "He has a terrible fear that the Soviet era is returning," they say. "We do too."
When asked why a writer must hide such allegories and can't write about whatever he feels like, Silberman answers that officially it is possible, but then self-censorship kicks in again. No wonder: Sorokin's books were burned in Moscow in an, albeit unofficial, protest. Not long ago he visited Israel and met with readers at Don Quixote. His picture hangs proudly on the store's wall of "important figures," the cultural heroes of some one million people in Israel. The overwhelming majority of them are unknown to readers of Hebrew.
Anyone to whom the phrase "cultural ghetto" pops into their mind should immediately hit the delete button. There are in effect two cultural worlds that are slowly moving closer toward each other. Here is a little example: until not long ago, there were five Russian-language bookstores along a stretch of some 100 meters of Allenby Street. One of them closed recently. The demand is dropping and the meeting points are increasing: Greater numbers of Israeli authors are being translated into Russian and growing numbers of veteran Israelis are visiting the Russian-language stores.
Rosenberg relates that the same morning as our conversation a young "Israeli" came to the store asking to buy Russian books for his girlfriend. Others come in couples or mixed groups.
The best-selling Israeli author at the moment, at least at Don Quixote, is David Grossman in Russian translation. Yes that one, the leftist. That too is a change: The reputation of Amos Oz was destroyed at a certain point by the Russian press, which fixed his image as a leftist hater of Israel. Today the eroded strength of this same press can no longer do something like that.
Rosenberg says that the store also carries Russian classics translated into Hebrew. The buyers are mostly parents who want to preserve the cultural traditions in their children, who have already lost the ability to read in Russian. Silberman's 11-year-old daughter peeks at the end of the Harry Potter books in Russian, which came out before the Hebrew translation, but is waiting for the Hebrew version to read the book in its entirety.
The Israelization of Rosenberg's 25-year-old son is reflected in the fact that he started reading much less, like the Israelis. The reciprocal processes taking place in the literary arena are an allegory for the broader reciprocal processes.
As we talk, a man wearing a security company uniform entered the store and piled up some books to buy. He was literally a walking stereotype of the Russian who reads books everywhere, or listens to audio versions, which are a hit among Russians. President Vladimir Putin personally contributed to promoting this trend. Around a year ago he said during an interview in Moscow that when he is stuck in traffic jams, he usually listens to audio books. The next day large crowds in Tel Aviv were already lining up at bookstores to buy audio books, just like Putin. He really still is a true cultural icon.
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