Untitled by Yadid Rubin
Untitled, Yadid Rubin (2008)
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Luah Halak ‏(Tabula Rasa‏) by Nathan Shaham. Zmora-Bitan
Hebrew (365 pages), NIS 94

“Tabula Rasa” is a novel of monumental proportions, an impressive if sad memorial to the grand experiment in human engineering that was conducted in Israel: the kibbutz. The death throes of the kibbutz echo within Israeli experience and are refracted through many works of art. Nathan Shaham has managed to find exactly the proper tone to tell the story of the life and death of the kibbutz: through neither bitter criticism nor tender nostalgia, but a highly sober literary perspective that produces realistic prose and the illusion of a genuine slice of life.

The book’s main character is Hanan Harari, a painter in a modern-day kibbutz, the fictional Givat Abirim ‏(Knights Hill‏). His life is spread out before us, past and present intertwined, until we feel we know him inside and out. Shaham, himself a member of Kibbutz Beit Alfa since before 1948, skillfully creates the gallery of characters surrounding Hanan: his wife Bahira; her close friend Mirka; and Hanan’s friends Ernst, an intellectual ideologue, and Goodman, as decent as the name implies, a millionaire who never resided on the kibbutz and tried once ‏(unsuccessfully‏) to advance Hanan’s career abroad.

The novel opens with a car accident of both symbolic and material significance involving Hanan, Bahira and another kibbutz member, while they are on their way to visit Ernst in a Haifa hospital. Bahira is injured in the accident, marking the beginning of a painful process of deterioration that is described in heartrendingly realistic detail. The book ends with her death ‏(Ernst and Goodman are both gone by then), leaving Hanan aging and isolated in the midst of the privatized kibbutz, where ideology has been cast aside like an unwanted tool.

The choice of using a painter − an artist who, to some degree, lives his life outside mainstream society − to personify the kibbutz is bathed in irony. The figure of Hanan enables Shaham to use art as a symbol of spiritual life. Take the conversation between the young Hanan, who has just arrived at the kibbutz and is already thinking of leaving it, and the veteran kibbutz member Albert, who convinces him to stay:

“When you came here you thought, ‘Everyone here has ideals and reads books and loves music.’ You quickly learned that people here are so tired of this life that they don’t read books anymore and don’t listen to music.”
“It’s their loss.”

“Not only theirs, all of ours. These people wreck the kibbutz from within. Their children will be farmers without ideals, and art won’t interest them at all. And then the ideal fails along with art. Do you understand where I am going?”

For further reading:

Designing utopia
The Kibbutz at 100 / But does it have a future?
Hebrew Fiction / Her memories are mine

In addition, there are conversations about Hanan’s artistic style, which becomes increasingly abstract. Here Shaham shows that abstract art, which even at the beginning of the 20th century had difficulty maintaining its earlier subversive and groundbreaking dimensions, does not find favor with the kibbutz members, who demand that Hanan paint their lives in clear outlines.

On a literal level, these discussions are somewhat naive and anachronistic. But on the symbolic plane they grant a fine metaphorical edge to the book, showing the kibbutz itself to be an abstract idea that cannot be realized, and the desire for representational art to be a desire for higher ideals to be brought down to the material level of the world.

And so the kibbutz is on the one hand a work of art and on the other a static painting, a museum piece expropriated from the present and already consigned to history. The so-called real kibbutz is preserved as an artistic representation, while the contemporary one becomes just a town with a pretty face.

‘Clay in the hands of the maker’

The book’s title refers to the worlds of art and ideology, in the sense that humanity can be conceived of as a clean slate, like “clay in the hands of the maker,” as the Yom Kippur liturgy has it. The kibbutz, battling giants, tries to deal with essential questions of human life: What is the process of spiritual refinement, and how can people be educated to be magnanimous?

There is no doubt that the basic concept of the kibbutz − equality for all − has a spiritual element and a powerful draw, but when reduced to the details of daily life, there is a painful gap between the idea and its realization. The fate of the kibbutz, it turns out, is no different from that of religion. Both offer something quite appealing, but the package deal each entails is rejected by many as no longer relevant.

Nor does the free market provide a lifeline for Hanan’s art. “Since privatization, sales of his work were critical to maintaining his [kibbutz] department, but he was unable to produce saleable works, sentimental landscapes that the gallery in Jaffa was so enthusiastic about and which he loathed.”

The sharp teeth of capitalism dig deep into Hanan’s tender skin: “His heart ached at the name Goodman gave to their partnership: the Painting Production Enterprise. If Goodman were alive, he would be among the kibbutz’s wealthy class, whose feebleminded members recently suggested categorizing everyone according to income.”

Welcome to the club, I couldn’t help thinking. Because unfortunately, and shamefully, it’s not only the feebleminded who classify people according to how much they earn. It seems to me that this sentence epitomizes one of the book’s achievements: a profound understanding of the fragile intimacy between individuals and the ideologies to which they subscribe.

And so, for example, Bahira’s and Mirka’s deep belief in the virtues of communism - they are depicted as redder than the rest of the kibbutz members - carries a lot of weight in their inner calculus about themselves, and the book’s analogy between Bahira’s death and that of the kibbutz expresses this connection. In the final scene, after Bahira’s funeral, Hanan, now bereft of genuine intimacy with another human being, tries to squeeze out a tiny last flash of vitality from his art, and decides to paint a portrait of his beloved wife based on an old photo - a submission to the representational art he loathes, turning his artistic ideology on its head.

The book’s main deficiency is the way it skips over the different problems the kibbutz has faced through its history: from the exploitation of cheap hired labor, in complete contradiction of its ideas of equality and self-sufficiency, through manipulation of stock market shares and up to the attempt to privatize land by changing its designated purpose, a practice that the Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional. Some perspective on the chauvinism deeply rooted in the kibbutz would not have hurt either, although, overall, the book does succeed in creating a realistic image of life in a collective community.

“Tabula Rasa” answers the question “What was life on the kibbutz like?” even if, unlike Assaf Inbari’s “Going Home” (2009), it stops short of addressing what the kibbutz actually was. Beyond being an excellent novel, “Tabula Rasa” is an important historical and sociological document.

Dr. Ketzia Alon is a literary scholar and curator.