How Novelist Gabriela Avigur-Rotem Came Up With Her Unforgettable Cat

From the comfort of her Galilee village, the writer explores life and death, humans and felines, and Israel and Costa Rica.

Neri Livneh
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Neri Livneh

Gabriela Avigur-Rotem's new book is dedicated to “Pachimu, my unforgettable cat.” Entitled “Every Story Is a Sudden Cat” and available only in Hebrew, it is not a book about cats, but about eternal loneliness and disappointment, both during life and afterward. But one of the protagonists is named Shunra − the unforgettable cat who belongs to the book’s heroine, Uriana, and the only living creature in the world who loves her and understands her, and practically the only creature with whom she regularly speaks. The author, as you may have already surmised, has a thing for felines.

Avigur-Rotem lives at the edge of the country, in a small hamlet called Avtalion, which is close to the village of Arraba. A total of 80 families live in Avtalion. Her home, situated on a street called Yefeh Nof, looks out on the gorgeous view of well-groomed fields in the Beit Netofa valley; it has a blossoming purple bougainvillea in the garden, a jacaranda tree, and herbs. Mainly it has Misha, Pachimu’s heir, a Siberian cat the size of a mid-sized dog, who is not permitted to leave the house at all. Misha sits on the keyboard while she writes and readily responds to the call of “Come to Mama!”

As Shunra is to Uriana, Misha is the living creature closest to Avigur-Rotem, at least when it comes to current residents of the home in Avtalion. He doesn’t care if she is fat or thin, or if she’s bought fashionable clothes or not; he doesn’t care if she can’t tell right from left, and doesn’t care if in real life, like the book’s protagonist, she feels that seven years ago, when she turned 60, something inside her died (although new things have been born in her, too).

For Misha, she is alive and thriving; she is his entire world, even if most of her actual life happens by the computer or in the armchair in the living room of this beautiful home in this charming  village, which doesn’t even have a grocery store. It doesn’t bother her that in this inner life she is an intrepid tourist and that in the worlds she has conjured up in her mind, then woven into words that  became a wonderful book − one of the main heroes happens to be a cat.

After all, all those who speak in her book, living and dead, are complainers. The chief protagonist, Uriana, complains about her husband Ilsar and about her son who dumped her and took her granddaughter, Tut, away from her. Meanwhile, Uriana’s dead mother, Dona Dorati, continues to complain from the grave about her husband, who left her and fled to Costa Rica, and about one daughter who is too fat, another who is too beautiful, and the older one, who is too ugly.

Ilsar, an overly energetic macho Israeli, “a man’s man” in the sabra parlance of the 1950s, albeit one with an autistic twist, complains about his wife Uriana, who has put on weight. He himself wanders about the world, going places where no man has set foot, while she opts to sink into her sofa, consoling herself with forbidden sweets and carrying on an enthusiastic and loving relationship with her cat Shunra.

The dead, in their burial places underground, continue to conduct conversations among themselves, like so many Friday evening living-room discussions, and complain about their relatives and the political situation; the right-wingers complain about the left-wing dead, and the leftists about the right-wing dead, and everyone complains about “the situation.”

The relatives who visit the graves of their family members continue to complain within their earshot, as it were; the latter respond to them and offer advice, except that the voices of the dead cannot be heard by the living.

 In Avigur-Rotem’s book, communication is a one-way street: Only the dead can hear the living. Perhaps this is the punishment they have been given there, underground: sentenced to an eternity of listening to complaints. They have no real peace. And among the dead is one woman who never ceases to yearn for her cat, because his is the only love she has, and even the cats that wander about in the cemetery cannot appease her yearnings.

If there is any impulse that’s sparked by a reading of this book, it is the urgent need to go and visit the graves of our loved ones, because there is, after all, great comfort in the thought that you can still correct things − that we can continue to say what we didn’t manage to say before they departed this world; or conversely, we can compel them to listen to us for a change.

As with elegant lace embroidery, beauty, for Avigur-Rotem, is found in the small details: an abundance of information that is the outcome of fundamental and deep research; multiple characters, some of whom have been formed into full-fledged characters, and others that are only insinuated at, some living, some dead; primary and secondary plots; and also, comfortingly enough, quite a few humorous moments. The virtuosity with which she moves between the consciousness of her living and dead protagonists, between internal monologues that take place largely within her characters’ consciousness, and dialogues presented in directly spoken language − this is no less than astonishing.

Binders and index cards

Following the publication of each of her previous books (“Heatwave and Crazy Birds,” “Mozart Was Not a Jew,” “Ancient Red”), someone has always written that each is in essence the Israeli version of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” (1967) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But in my opinion, her new book especially fits this description perfectly.

For “Ancient Red” (which New York Magazine selected in 2011 as one of the 12 best books not yet translated into English), Avigur-Rotem became an expert in the history of the Aaronsohn family, activists in a secret, pro-British spying organization which operated under Turkish rule in Palestine. The huge loose-leaf binder the author shows off contains copies of documents that were themselves unknown to  existing family members, as well as original wills and burial records. Her investigation included more than a few expeditions around the country, all for the purpose of producing 10 pages in the book. I must have my binders,” she says. “Otherwise I forget everything. I have either loose-leaf binders or index cards.”

In her newest effort, Avigur-Rotem has styled herself an expert on the geology of semi-precious stones and their origins, so that she could first of all know everything possible − and then actually forget most of it − to describe the vocation of Ilsar, who imports such stones from exotic locales around the world. The gems she herself purchased for the sake of her work are now neatly arranged in boxes on the desk in her study, where there is a library with volumes arranged according to the authors’ country of origin. She has a section devoted to books about cats, the most beautiful of which is an album of photos taken by her oldest son, Itamar Rotem, which is dedicated entirely to images of the unforgettable Pachimu.

What’s more, for the purpose of writing the book, Gabriela also devoted a great deal of time to the study of undersea creatures, dolphins in particular, so that she could better create the character of Uriana’s son, Aviad; she immersed herself in Bulgarian cooking so she could offer readers some of the recipes prepared by Victoria, one of the dead characters; and in a comprehensive fashion, she studied Costa Rica, its natural flora and fauna, nature reserves, cities, demographic makeup and the tourists who visit, because the country plays a central role in the  plot.

If there is any other impulse that is sparked by a reading of this book − aside from stopping by the nearest cemetery for a visit − it is the desire to purchase at the soonest possible opportunity a ticket to Costa Rica, the paradise that is the incredible place of refuge of the bad guys in her story. Incredibly enough, she has never been to Costa Rica.

Avigur-Rotem: “Since we moved to Avtalion, I have almost never gone abroad. I thought of going. I looked into prices and decided it was enough for me to take a trip on Google Earth along with my wild imagination, and with the nature films on television to which I am addicted. I make my journeys on the computer and from the sofa, from the home I have no need to leave.

“But really, why should I have to travel? I love being in Avtalion so much. What was I looking for when I took trips abroad? Quiet and beautiful vistas. Once upon a time, in order to see the world you had to get up and travel, but today you turn on the travel channel and you’ve got it all. All the rest I have here at home, without having to break a sweat or pack a bag, because I hate packing. If there is anything good to say about Ilsar, it is that he knows how to pack and as opposed to Uriana, or to me, he has an ability to orient himself. He can differentiate between left and right.”

The author found her way to Avtalion after she and her second husband looked for a place in the Galilee where they could live. Her father, who was an attorney for the Jewish Agency, was the individual who drew up and signed the contracts between residents of Avtalion and the Agency; after he died both the organization and residents decided to commemorate her father’s memory and asked her and her sister how to do so.

“I, of course, said that they ought to establish a library in his name,” she recalls. “But Agency officials told me a library wasn’t needed. What they needed was a kindergarten, so they built one named for him ... At the time it was the end of the world. Avtalion also seemed like the end of the world because the people here were living in these boxy concrete prefabs. We cut the ribbon at the dedication ceremony, but a few years later, when we were looking for a place to live up here, we passed through Avtalion and saw that it had grown and developed. We found a house and in under half an hour bought it.”

Dolphins and whales

Gabriela Avigur-Rotem is a pleasant-looking woman who laughs easily and is easy to become friendly with; a look of deep sadness clouds her eyes even when she flashes her broad smile. She was born in Argentina in 1946. At birth, her parents gave her the ultimately Zionist name Geula (redemption), but officials in Argentina refused to record a non-Christian name in the birth records so her name was changed to Gabriela.

Her Zionist parents belonged to the Maccabi movement in Argentina. By the time they arrived at Kibbutz Mefalsim on the Israel-Gaza border, Gabriela was already three and a half years old, and the State of Israel was two years old. Her father, a lawyer, had dreamed of making the desert bloom and became a farmer.

Until she was six, Gabriela lived on Kibbutz Mefalsim, whose members came from Argentina and Uruguay. “All of them spoke with this really strong accent. One day a girl arrived, whose mother spoke in what I considered children’s Hebrew. Without any accent. And I remember my astonishment at the fact that an adult woman − she was probably in her twenties − was speaking in children’s Hebrew: Hebrew without an accent.”

Do you remember anything from your childhood in Argentina?

“No, I don’t remember a thing. But what’s interesting is that there was only one time after I moved to Israel that I went back to Argentina. It was when Israel turned 50. I was sent by the Foreign Ministry to Buenos Aires to the book fair there. I went with my son Ariel. I have a lot of relatives there. I remember walking through the streets and not seeing anything familiar to me. But something there nevertheless did give me this feeling of putting on an old comfortable pair of slippers. Something there was familiar. First of all, I understood a great deal of the language that people were speaking. I had a sort of deja-vu. And there was something else that surprised me − people’s conduct, their friendliness; you felt that it was part of their culture. And then I thought, goodness! What a shock they must get when they arrive in Israel.”

Two years after her family arrived at Mefalsim, her father’s parents immigrated to Israel, but the kibbutz refused to accept them as members, claiming they were too old. So the family, which included two daughters, moved to Lod, a city that was at the time even more rundown than it is today. Her father began working at the absorption department of the Jewish Agency, and in the meantime completed the exams required to practice law locally. The family then moved to Ramat Chen, and her father transferred to the Agency’s legal department. Her mother became a private English teacher and Gabriela began to write.

She enrolled at Blich High School, which was walking distance from home. That is when she met her first boyfriend − “My mythological ex, who was my boyfriend until we were 17 − Danny Pesach, who was killed in the Yom Kippur War.”

Following her army service, Gabriela enrolled at Tel Aviv University, where she studied Hebrew literature and English literature. Upon graduation, to her regret she found herself teaching literature at Blich.

“I went back there five years after graduating, and it was an awful feeling of, ‘You tried to go too far, further than you were capable of, and now you are working your way backward. You will never be a writer.’ She got married, and when her older son Itamar was born, she stopped teaching and went back to it only when she got a divorce seven years later, by which time she had two sons. The younger is Ariel, the father of her two grandchildren.

Avigur-Rotem’s book “Mozart Was Not a Jew,” was published when she was still working as a teacher. She met her second husband, biologist Prof. Aaron Avivi, in an enrichment class she taught.

Is there any connection between the fact that your husband researches the life of the blind mole, which lives in tunnels, and that you yourself have described the lives of dead people residing in their burrows?

“I hadn’t thought of that. I got the idea of a book about life in the burial tunnels from my best friend’s husband. He is a person who tells a lot of unique stories, and one day he told me a story that had been told to him by the member of a burial society − about how one time, from out of one of the graves, a cell phone started ringing. I was turned on by the idea and thought to myself what the dead people around him must have been thinking. That is what lit the fuse ... Then I started to think about the other dead people, about their histories. All the while, and I can say this after the fact, I felt that I did what Herman Melville did in ‘Moby Dick’ − of course, I don’t have even one iota of his talent − which I reread for the sake of this latest book. Why? Because I knew that Aviad, Uriana’s son, loves dolphins, and so I began to take an interest in relations between humans and marine animals.

“But what I did not notice beforehand, when I’d read it on previous occasions, was the structure of ‘Moby Dick.’ What did Melville do? He served up the subject of whales from every possible angle. The plot begins to move and really gathers momentum only in the final quarter of the book. Unconsciously, this structure trickled down into my book. My own great whale is death, and that is the subject I explore − who is dead, why is he dead, did he die happy, did he die miserable, did he die young, did he die old? And at the end, the plot was suddenly released from my tight grasp, and ran on ahead.”

Something else that strongly influenced the contents of “Every Story Is a Sudden Cat” was her mother’s death. It happened with some strange timing, shortly after Gabriela herself developed an unusual disease (nonmalignant but particularly disturbing; she made a complete recovery but her hearing is now impaired). The disease necessitated treatment and examinations at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem, with her husband − who like Ilsar, never grows tired − dragging her from exam to consultation to additional consult ation, to treatment. Toward the very end of the nausea-inducing treatment the writer underwent, she was finally sent home to rest.

“I asked the doctors if I could stop along the way to visit my mother, who was living in an assisted-living facility in Kfar Sava and who was extremely active, 90 years old and clear as a bell. The doctors responded that it would be best if I stopped off for a rest along the way.

Avigur-Rotem: “We went to visit her. She was with her Filipina, dressed as she always is, very nicely, and at the end of the visit she walked us out to the parking lot. We got into the car and she started walking back toward the building and suddenly tripped on the sidewalk and fell. We called for an ambulance and took her to the hospital, where she was hospitalized for three weeks before passing away. I was told that she may have had a stroke. But she was almost 90.

“The funeral was held very late in the day, because I could not stand in the August sun due to the treatments I’d had. They held the funeral very late at night. That is how this book opens. It was 10 years after my father’s death. My mother was at Ariel’s wedding, and passed away in 2009.”

Do you visit her grave?

“Not now. Not only is it far away, but as opposed to what I wrote in the book, I feel that I carry my memories in my head, and what is buried in the cemetery does not speak to me at all. But they are very interesting places, cemeteries. When I wrote ‘Ancient Red,’ I visited lots of cemeteries. When my mother was still alive, we would go with her every year to my father’s grave. He died when he was 68. I stand there in front of the tombstones and say nothing, telling myself, ‘They aren’t there.’ I feel that if there were something in them, then it is in me, within me, in my education, in my expectations, in my disappointments − but not in stones.”

I’m the same way, but since reading your book I’ve had feelings of guilt.

“I know that with first-person writing the reader has a tendency to believe that I am talking about myself. I cannot get into the head of every person. There are provinces I feel I can sail off to, even if I have never been there − like Costa Rica. I really enter into the characters and live their lives in my imagination, and I leave the characters once the book is finished. So there is a very significant difference between what the heroine will do and what I would do.”

This is a book filled with bad children, as if it is the fate of all children to disappoint their parents.

“Yes, in the past few years I have come up against this phenomenon − thank goodness not in my own life. Do you know that my first-born grandson is able to distinguish between left and right? And he’s only 4 years old.”

The critics like you a lot. Your books are best sellers, but nevertheless there is a sense that you aren’t part of the local literary clique, maybe because you live far from the center of the country, or you don’t fly to conferences abroad.

“I admit that on a few occasions there have been attempts to invite me to events abroad, but I turned them down. I attended a few events, but didn’t enjoy myself. Years ago I decided not to read the reviews, after I saw Dahlia Rabikovitch explaining on television that she stopped writing stories after a horrible review was written about her. That made a dreadful impression on me. I thought to myself that if a critic can obliterate someone’s creation, then I don’t want to read it. I don’t have to read the reviews in order to write.

“Here’s something else I don’t have to do. A few years ago I read an article about Hans Jauss’s reception theory, which examines which reviews were written about the author and how he or she modified his next book as a result of the criticism. I told myself that I was not prepared to be influenced by what people were saying about me. Because the most important thing in writing is to maintain freedom and to maintain my slow pace. If people like it, then great; if not, then not.”

Common language

Her romance with cats began relatively late in life. She always thought she was a dog person: “I discovered the cat by virtue of my son Ariel getting married and going on his honeymoon. He needed someone to look after his cat for three weeks. I discovered I had a common language with this animal, and after I recovered from everything that I went through, I bought Pachimu, and it is absolutely a different sort of friendship than you have with a dog, but no less intense.

“When Pachimu got sick and was in hospital, I moved to the center of the country to visit him each day, but it was not possible to save him, and it broke my heart. It wasn’t only the death, but also the suffering. He came back home in worse condition, and lived another two or three days, and I completely fell apart. When it happened, the book was already written. After his death I could not have written about him, due to the intense pain.

“And really, Shunra is Pachimu, no more and no less. I dedicated the book to him, because I learned a great deal from him. How to watch, how to pay attention, how to relate. He was with me for over four years, and I enjoyed his company a great deal. I thought a lot about the issue of friendship between humans and animals. I remember that from my early childhood I loved to read these sorts of stories. ‘White Fang,’ was my most prized possession. They would not be making these parables if there weren’t something to them.”

‘We return to dust’

Do you believe in life after death?

“No. I simply don’t. When I was little, I believed in it, of course. But to my regret, I do not believe in it. I comfort myself with the notion that we return to dust, and the day will come when Earth explodes that we will return to the stars from which we came. A comforting thought. The stars are simply so beautiful. One of my greatest disappointments was when I was at a planetarium and I learned that stars aren’t pointy. That was also a lesson in humility. To understand that we are here for a limited amount of time, for a single orbit, and in this time you do the best you can, but the world will continue to operate without you.”

Let’s talk about being 60. According to your book, although there is life after death there is barely any life before it, at least for Uriana and especially after her 60th birthday.

“I don’t know if 60 is the fault line, but these are, for certain, the final years. In the years since I turned 60, it has become ever more clear that there are some things that will no longer happen. Over the years, I have of course given up on a lot of things, like Uriana. You start to do without things about which you say: Well, that’s not for me anymore, not at my age. I used to love delicate jewelry. At some point, you realize that it is suited only to smooth, unblemished skin. Seven-centimeter heels are no longer suited to my age; the backaches aren’t worth the added value they bring to your appearance. To wear a swimsuit and have people see me? Heaven forbid. So you go without it. You discover that the more meaningful things are no longer going to happen, either.

“I am comforted by the fact that I am writing and I hope that my brain will continue to serve me in good stead in my advanced years. But my memory, for instance, is no longer what it was and that bothers me a lot. A lot of things I learned and knew are escaping from my memory, and it hurts me to lose them. My capacity to concentrate is also reduced. There was a time when I could write eight hours a day and forget to get up from my chair. That’s no longer the case. But I’ve learned how to deal with it. I work differently; I work for two hours and feel the smoke coming out of my head. So I get up and put up a pot of something or do the wash or play with Misha. I’ve learned that I have to work differently.

“One of the wonderful things that age brings on is being a grandmother, which is pleasure, pure pleasure. My girlfriends who became grandmothers before me would say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like. You’ll just have to see for yourself.’ I would just nod. Still, I never imagined what a pleasure it is to have grandchildren. It is a wonderful sort of unadulterated love. It is net pleasure, but sure, you also worry.”

Does one also give up on dreams of finding love?

“You don’t give up on the dreams, but what happens is something more bitter; the dreams aren’t fulfilled. You’re still eligible for falling in love but not for someone to fall in love with you. True, this disturbs Uriana and she remembers and is reminded of all sorts of precedents, but you know it happens only in Hollywood; it doesn’t happen in real life. You have to know that it makes no difference what you do, you won’t be able to change it. It’s a feeling that you’re going through a process that can’t be altered. When I look around me, I know women who try to arrest the process with plastic surgery, and every so often I say to myself, maybe I’ll do it. But then I say, what for? Who am I fooling? Inside, you aren’t going to suddenly become 35. So I say that the wise thing is, and I am constantly teaching myself, to age with the understanding that there are advantages to it, too.”

Really? What are they?

“First of all, wisdom, life experience, patience and tolerance, the ability to distinguish between what’s important and what isn’t, and to understand what is worth investing in and what is worth conceding, because these are truly foolish things. Also, the things you collect. It’s an awful shame that I can’t remember everything  I’ve read.”

That’s okay. When you get Alzheimer’s, it’ll all come back to you.

“True, but even without remembering you amass knowledge, you learn. Learning is fascinating. To know something you did not know, to understand something  you did not understand. I am so content on days when I learn something. I also think that all of this research I do before I sit down to write, before or during the writing, fulfills in me a need not only to retrieve these materials from inside me, but also to bring materials inside. There was a time in my life, until I was 50 or so, when if people would ask me if I wanted to be younger, I’d say, ‘You must be kidding, I am at a wonderful age.’ Now, at age 60-plus, I would say that I want to be younger, but above all because of all sorts of pains in my body. The body reminds you that it’s there, and that is one of the less pleasant things you discover ...

“You become a sort of captive of your body, and it’s insulting. If your body doesn’t disturb you, you don’t think about it. You are much more about spirit, thoughts, desires, passions, disappointments. My body didn’t bother me. There were bodily passions, of course, but they, too, originated with emotion. But when the body begins to announce its existence, it is simply a terrible nudnik. All sorts of pains and muscle spasms and heartburn, and I say, what is this? Stop pestering me already. But there are pills for everything, and when all is said and done, I’ve had pretty good luck and I can’t complain.”

Have you noticed that in your book all the couples have terrible marriages? Do you think marriages are doomed to fail or that they have to be so unsatisfactory?

“My experience, my life experience, tells me that there are no happy loves. In truth, when you think about the chances of two people who are altogether alien to one another, who come from different cultures even if we were all raised here, although there are nevertheless differences between those who came from Latin America, like me and like Uriana, and those who were born here, like Ilsar and my husband Aaron − what is the chance of them staying together for years on end?”

And nevertheless, according to your book even Uriana, whose married life is awful, isn’t willing to get a divorce, because at age 60 you don’t have the strength for drama.

“Yes, you only have strength to concede and to try to come to terms with the idea that no great change is going to happen in your life.”

Either that, or you shut your eyes so as not to allow life to confound you.

“Yes, it is my good fortune that I am able to do so.”

Gabriela Avigur-Rotem. Credit: Kobi Kalmonovitz
Prof. Aaron Avivi.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum