Before starting to write, he needs a few minutes, or hours, or days, depending on whether he has inspiration. He needs to stare at a blank page. Mix the thoughts in his brain. Feel things. And when everything is stuck in his craw, he begins to write: in Russian, with something like the circular motions of an orchestra conductor performing a work from the Romantic period. “The white page is like nature in Russia, like snow,” he says. “That is what generates the inspiration. And the black letters on the white snow generate multitudes of emotions.”
His name is Leonid Pekarovsky and he works for a security firm in the parking lot of a Daihatsu dealership in Tel Aviv, in either day or night shifts. He’s been working here for 17 years. His small booth contains a chair and a shelf that serves as a table, on which are perched an electric kettle, a radio, a dish holding five biscuits, the notebook with the white pages and the car keys of those who shout, “I’ll only be a quarter of an hour, move me if I block someone.” A row of books stands on an upper shelf; hanging on an empty wall is a framed photograph of Franz Kafka.
“Once upon a time, in a certain kingdom in a certain Middle East democracy, there was a guard. The guard sat for many days in a booth that was located in the southern part of a beautiful Mediterranean city, in a parking lot made of concrete. The guard did not like the booth: It evoked solitary confinement in a prison ... Occasionally the guard asked an elegant, elderly woman who was his Fortuna: Why did you have to put me in a booth? The woman made no reply, only smiled mysteriously. After all, the guard was not born for the booth. He felt that he possessed prodigious abilities and powers. He knew that the democratic state would gain if it utilized those powers and abilities. But the democratic state had no need either for the guard or for his powers and abilities.”
This is the opening of Pekarovsky’s book, “Broom and Other Stories,” which has just been published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad (in Hebrew). He is 64 and in his uniform and with his perfectly groomed gray hair, he resembles an English lord. Polite and relaxed, he looks as though he might be on the way to the club for a pint of Guinness − and not about to stride back and forth across burning black asphalt.
Pekarovsky was born in Kiev. His father, Michael, who just died, held a Ph.D. in art and was a graduate of the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. He wrote art criticism, poetry, books on the philosophy of art and on general philosophy, and also music. Pekarovsky’s mother lives in Israel; his older sister remained in Kiev.
After completing high school, Pekarovsky was drafted into the Soviet army for a three-year stint. “We were 1,000 kilometers from Kiev,” he says. “You get to go home once, at the end of the service. The food is absolutely terrible and everyone gets sick afterward.”
He wrote poems for his pleasure while still in school and published essays on Russian poetry and on Kafka. “Nabokov said that a prose writer who does not have poetics in his background does not write well,” he notes.
Following his army discharge, he enrolled in the Kiev art institute and spent six years there. Afterward, he was employed in the Ministry of Culture, designed exhibitions − some of them outside the Soviet Union − wrote art criticism for journals and newspapers and also worked as a museum guide. He met his future wife, Svetlana, when he was 34 and she was 23. They have a son, Alexei, now 30, who is employed in high tech.
“My wife is very talented,” Pekarovsky says. “We have the same blood, the same chemistry. She too loves art. She is a painter and a graphic artist and works in a studio that produces computerized animation. The new ‘Bamba Baby’ is hers” − referring to the character associated with the quintessential Israeli snack food − “and also Kofiko [a cartoon monkey] on television and Shmulik the hedgehog.” Svetlana is also a book illustrator and makes dolls.
Broom and dustpan
Leonid Pekarovsky wrote his doctoral dissertation on the German painter Albrecht Durer, but did not reach the stage of defending it.
“Along came Gorbachev,” he says, “and it became possible to make money, like in capitalist countries. So I abandoned the doctorate and did exhibitions and made money. In 1991, at exactly the time of the Gulf War, we came to Israel. My parents had come a few months before.”
He was certain that Israel would make use of his talents. But the reality of life in the Jewish state soon disabused him of fantasies about status and career. Pekarovsky was assigned a new label, the only one available to him and many others like him: that of a simple worker.
“I have a doctoral degree and invested great effort in studying the history of the Renaissance in northern Europe,” he writes in his story “Broom,” an abstract fantasy about the new immigrant’s world. “To be precise, my specific interest is the aesthetics of Albrecht Durer, the mysterious genius of the twilight years of medieval Germany. Now I am cleaning the streets of Tel Aviv. There is no shortage of garbage, thank God. Plenty of garbage means that I can earn my bread.
“Every morning, in the very earliest hours, when the dark, dense skies are tinted by a modest sunrise before gradually becoming a blue abyss, I make my way slowly through the empty Tel Aviv streets, pushing a cart that carries the props of my new profession: two garbage cans, a broom and a dustpan.”
Pekarovsky tried to battle against his fate. He started at Tel Aviv’s Jabotinsky House. “When I read Jabotinsky’s translations into Russian of [Poe’s] ‘The Raven’ and of [the poet Haim Nahman] Bialik, I thought he was a genius. None of the Russian geniuses translated ‘The Raven’ as well as he did. And I understand about poetry, I understand poems to the foundation, to the core, and in Israel I wanted to work in the Jabotinsky archive.
“In Russia I didn’t know anything about left and right,” Pekarovsky continues. “I went to Jabotinsky House on King George Street and asked if maybe they had a Russian translation of ‘The Raven.’ The man said they didn’t. I asked about other things and he said they didn’t have them, either, so I realized that it was no use looking for a job there. Then he asked me what my profession was and I told him I was an art critic. He suddenly produced a carton filled with pure gold: Jabotinsky’s paintings. Most people don’t know that in addition to being a great writer, Jabotinsky was also a painter.”
When Pekarovsky realized that he would not find work commensurate with his abilities, he turned to a different profession. He became a gardener in the military cemetery in Holon and an occasional gravedigger.
“I took the shovel and started to look for the plot and the row,” he also writes in “Broom.” “On the way I recalled the famous speech from ‘Hamlet,’ which I knew by heart ... After about 40 minutes my shovel encountered concrete. My earlier concern vanished: I had not found any Shakespearean skeletons or skulls. A grave in futuristic form gaped before me. I placed two boards across it. Next to it lay a small mound of golden sand.”
The next stage of Pekarovsky’s career was at a printing press in Bat Yam. But his two hands, the delicate hands of an intellectual, could not bear the burden of work there; nor could he bear the humiliation.
“They ate me alive,” he says. “They ate me alive everywhere, the Israeli foremen. There was one in particular − I worked at night and he would come and drink my blood. There were rolls of paper there, every roll weighing a ton, and I am a person who was born with an intellect and was not used to physical labor.
“So finally in 1995 I left and got a job with Hashmira, a security company. And ever since I have been sitting in the booth and writing poems: ‘Stay close to the pillar. Put it between the lines.’ I can say that I am very pleased with my situation. I arrive at 6 A.M., listen to Chopin, have a cup of coffee and embark on a journey into my inner world. Sometimes I fly to the second heaven, the third or the fourth. I don’t care that I earn NIS 4,200. Money is only a tool.”
‘A bit of a fantasist’
At first Pekarovsky and his family lived in the shabby Jesse Cohen neighborhood in Holon. He then bought an apartment in Bat Yam and continued to sit and write stories in Russian at work. The protagonists were ordinary people in the Israeli lower class, whose voice is rarely heard in contemporary Hebrew literature. Garage mechanics, prostitutes, hardscrabble immigrants, small-time bosses who tyrannize even smaller-time underlings; Bat Yam, south Tel Aviv, dark hovels and obscure alleys of life. “I am not 100 percent a realist,” he says, “I am a bit of a fantasist. Proust and Nabokov wrote in the same way.”
What made you start writing?
“The stories had to come out. I saw the [dead] soldiers who were brought to the cemeteries and became stressed out. When you come to Israel people talk about the fleshpot, but they do not talk about people’s metaphysical feelings. They do not say anything about the air here, this culture, these poems, the smile of the girl I met as a student. The whole of human psychology, the whole heart. No one talks about that. They say: You are a Zionist, ho, ho, ho. It’s like saying someone is a communist. They do not understand the special things I lost that day. I lost my whole soul. I dug graves. Isn’t that too much for the soul of an intellectual being?
“There is no one to talk to in the cemeteries, and all there is to read is what’s written on the headstones,” he continues. “It’s wrenching. It is a situation of death. Like migrating. Suddenly I landed here from a place where I had seen angels and the eyes of God, and I hear things like, ‘Fat man, get over here ... Beat it, you’re an imbecile.’ I see women who look like hammers, and I can’t enter that world. I will always remain partly an outsider. And then I wrote my first story, ‘Broom.’ I sent it to newspapers in Kiev, Moscow, Odessa and Germany, and it was published there and also in Russian-language papers in Israel.
“I didn’t believe I had talent, and I still don’t believe it. It was only in 2008 that it occurred to me to translate the story into Hebrew and send it to the literary supplements here.”
Pekarovsky’s son sent the story to culture supplements of the daily papers, including Haaretz’s culture and literature supplement, addressed to the editor, Benny Ziffer.
“I didn’t know who Benny Ziffer was,” Pekarovsky says. “But he read the story and called me the next day. ‘Leonid, this is Benny Ziffer.’ I replied, ‘Pleased to meet you, and I am Leonid. Who are you?’ There was a pause of about a minute and a half. When Benny Ziffer calls, everyone in Israel at least knows who he is. He told me he was editor of a literary supplement, and had received my story and found it very interesting and would publish it on the following Friday. I couldn’t believe it and shouted, ‘Yes!’ After that, I couldn’t sleep the whole night.
“Lina Chaplin is making a film about Russians for Channel 2 and I am in it. So we met in the office of Benny Ziffer and she asked him, ‘What chance did Leonid have that you would read his story?’ He said, ‘Zero-point-zero-five percent. It was already on the way to the junk mail but at the last minute I opened it. I don’t know why.’ After the story was published, Benny told me, ‘Keep writing,’ and he published 80 percent of what I wrote. The same thing happened with Sergei Dovlatov [1941-1990], a Russian writer, a genius among geniuses, whom people compare to Chekhov. Someone sent one of his stories to The New Yorker and they published it. The friend then called to tell him and he asked, ‘Is The New Yorker a newspaper or a magazine?’”
Benny Ziffer can’t remember why he opened that particular envelope. “It took me a little time before I noticed it,” he says. “It was suspicious at first, because it didn’t look like something personal but like some mass-distribution thing. After a week or two I opened it and read the story and it left me stunned. You don’t see that kind of thing. It’s powerful and it’s written in a style such as I haven’t read for a long time. At first I suspected that he wasn’t the author but that someone else was concealing himself, and I asked for more concrete details. When he sent me all the details and said he was an art scholar, I saw that he wasn’t an impostor.
“What sets his stories apart is that they are a fusion between the sublime and the low. Like the great Russian works. They start from something banal and then assume metaphysical dimensions. It’s a unique thing, and he turned it into art. That is his great talent. I refuse to view it as a curiosity: it’s just good literature and I hope it influences our literature and brings it back to a place that isn’t totally occupied with psychology and stream of consciousness. His heroes are so elementary that they are not capable of that. They don’t have the luxury of being able to sit around and reflect on their world and try to figure out what they feel.”
People of culture
Since then, it can be said without exaggeration, that Pekarovsky’s life has changed. Not his material life; his inner life. The self-image of the alienated new immigrant underwent a transformation. No, he didn’t leave his booth in the parking lot; he is still doing his job devotedly.
“Apparently it was necessary for me to sit here and suffer the situation and feel like I was in prison. Marcus Aurelius wrote that even in jail no one can take away your inner freedom. He’s worth reading, it’s like honey for the heart.”
One day, about a year ago, he got a call from Noga Albalach, a fiction editor at Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House. She told him they were interested in publishing a collection of his short stories. Pekarovsky: “I asked my boss, Rami Unger, what Hakibbutz Hameuchad is. He said, ‘Leonid, are you some kind of dumbbell? It’s a very old publishing house here, which has operated since 1931.’”
There was also another small miracle along the way. When the time came to sign a contract, a Daihatsu employee put him in touch with a top lawyer. “Rami Unger asked me, ‘Do you want that man’s help? Then you will have to sell your apartment.’ I met with him anyway. He said, ‘I will help you for free,’ and drew up a new contract.”
What did the people at Daihatsu say when the guard told them he was now an established writer?
“It was unbelievable. Those who had eaten me alive left me alone.”
Why did they eat you alive?
“There is one manager here − I wrote about him in the book − who asks me, ‘Why are you talking to Rami?’ I said, ‘I am not talking to him, he is talking to me.’ ‘And why are you sitting in the booth? You have to make the rounds.’ Then a bigger manager than him asked, ‘Why are you making the rounds? I call but you don’t answer. And even worse, why are you talking to people? You have to sit quietly and press buttons, that’s your job.’ I replied, ‘Talk to whom and about what? What can I talk to you about?’ Now he walks by quietly and doesn’t open his mouth. Everyone who used to bug me now behaves nicely.
“One time Rami told me that everyone was going to a five-star hotel in Haifa for four days and that he was inviting me and my wife to join. He entered the big hall in the evening, and who is the first one he approaches? Me. And he says to everyone, ‘This is the most important person in the company.’ That was last year, when I was already famous. I was given a room on the ninth floor, with a sea view. When I told people what floor I was on, they opened their eyes wide and I understood that it was the best.”
Pekarovsky’s book is dedicated to Rami Unger and Rami’s wife, Yael. She is delighted at his success. “He is a gifted writer,” she says. “There is no doubt about it. We see him every morning when we come to work, and when Benny Ziffer started to publish his stories, we understood that we didn’t have just any writer but one such as we read when we were children.
“At first, of course, we had no idea he was writing,” she continues. “You might see a waiter who serves you Diet Coke and you don’t know that there is sometimes a great writer or a brilliant student there. [Leonid] is a very smart man and we are very happy that we were able to help. Pearls are rare and are not scattered about everywhere. Only those who are knowledgeable, and there are not many of them, are capable of appreciating it, and for those of us who grew up with great Russian literature, it’s like going back in time.”
The publicity Pekarovsky gained and his ongoing contact with locals other than those in the parking lot nuanced his attitude toward Israelis and Israeliness. He discovered that there are intellectuals here and also generous people who know quality when they see it.
At the same time, the parking lot experience has exposed him to a heady human mix. Thus, for example, he says: “There are three things one can look at unlimitedly: fire, water and blondes parking. Ten minutes, 20 minutes, half an hour, then a dent on this side and a dent on the other side,” he laughs.
But this is not the only thing he sees from his strategic vantage point. “The pioneers wanted a new Zionist Jew and got a chutzpah Jew. They think that if they say ‘Pal, bro, buddy’ and touch you all the time, that’s nice and civilized. Until I met others I thought the barrier was too high and that I would never be able to talk to Israelis. Now I have changed my mind.”
While Pekarovsky says he has changed his opinion of us for the better, beneath the sharply honed, cynical sense of humor lurks imperial Russian arrogance. He is here, but his soul is forever bound to the giants of Russian culture. Indeed, until not long ago he never even bothered to read local literature.
“Why didn’t I read Amos Oz? I was afraid it was peripheral, that to read Amos Oz after reading Russian and world literature is nonsense,” he says. “At first I came here as though to paradise. I waited for something tremendous, and then I looked around and saw only ugliness and buildings in Baroque Muslim style and I thought, ‘Are these relatives of Kafka, of Karl Marx and of Boris Pasternak?’
“Now I no longer think that. I’ve met professors and seen how they feel literature, how they feel culture. I understood that Israel is not peripheral; the opposite is true. After reading Amos Oz, Meir Shalev and A.B. Yehoshua − I look at them as geniuses. Amos Oz is of the same rank as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. For me, that’s higher mathematics.”
But in your stories you prefer to show us Israel as in Kasrilevke, a place of small people.
“That is my style. I take the simplest thing and make it central. For example, in the story about prostitutes from Ukraine, I want to tell about the difference between erotica and porno. I want to write about the aesthetic of love and of sex, not about mechanical sex.”
How does Russian society in Israel view you?
“They are not pleased. I succeeded and broke the glass ceiling. Anyone with talent, and above all luck, can do it. But they do not offer praise, [and say] ‘Why him? Who is he, anyway?’”
Maybe because many of them are condescending about Israeli culture?
“Yes. I too thought that Israelis are dumb and that there is no culture here. I was wrong. It is culture. Before my eyes, I see that we fashioned a proper culture that is being exported from Israel to the whole world. Why do the Russians think otherwise? They are not familiar with modern Israeli culture, don’t know Hebrew, don’t know intellectuals, don’t want to read Amos Oz and others, exist within ghetto psychology. They think they are first in the world. But you shouldn’t care what they think: Israelis are intellectuals and are talented. To understand that, you have to talk to people − but how will they talk to people when they have been here 20 years and don’t speak Hebrew? I too do not know enough Hebrew, I don’t have a gift for languages and my mind is blocked by stones from Lenin and Stalin; it is all full and I have no more room for anything new.”
Will you write a novel in the future?
“I don’t have the stamina to write a long novel. A person has to understand who he is and know the limits of his talent. It’s better to write a good short story than to write 600 pages of nonsense. If you have no talent, all you end up with is boards; if you know who you are, that is a victory. You are great. Most people don’t know their limits. And I have a theory that this is the time of the short story. The young generation lacks the time and the patience to read long books. It’s a computer generation.”
Is there any chance you will write in Hebrew?
“There are a few ways to write in an environment which is not your mother tongue. The first way is for geniuses like Nabokov and Joseph Brodksy, who switched from Russian to English; Joseph Conrad, who switched from Polish to English; or Milan Kundera who moved from Czech to French. The second way is for people like those in the Russian ghetto in Israel. You stay insular, read books and newspapers only in Russian. The third way is that of Bashevis Singer, who wrote in Yiddish and was translated into all languages. I am the third way.”
Do you feel a little more Israeli now?
“I am not Israeli. That is impossible. [For that] you need to come from the dust and from the sand and from mother’s milk, and I don’t feel that completely. But I have accepted Israel and love it.”
The legend of Leonid and the parking lot booth will soon vanish. At least from the romanticized point of view. Daihatsu is moving to a luxurious new building in Tel Aviv, and Rami Unger is planning a splendid new workplace for Pekarovsky.
“An artist has to be off balance all the time, feel uncomfortable and dissatisfied, because otherwise he does not write,” Pekarovsky says with a note of regret mixed with a spark of triumph.