A Beautiful Bildungsroman

"Kol tza'adenu" ("The Sound of Our Steps") by Ronit Matalon, Am Oved, 424 pages, NIS 88

A little girl lived in a place far away. Taciturn and full of curiosity, she lived in a cabin, in the heat of the sun, beside the thistles and snakes, outside the city, in a home without a father, but with a mother who carried everyone at home on her shoulders, worked 12 hours a day, slept only a few hours at night, and kept her home neat and tidy.

Few literary works manage to represent the self and - using only a handful of characters, a handful of places, sparse dialogue, and a meager plot - manage to bring out the self of a very lovable little girl. She is presented to us in a sort of magic lantern, in a very beautiful manner. This is a story about a trauma. It is unclear how many years are described here. Usually, time stands still in "The Sound of Our Steps." There is always a little girl, hell, constant tumult, words, silence and love. This is a very beautiful book.

Ronit Matalon herself, as the narrator, is located outside "that place"; she is alone, standing beside us, without any autobiographical detail from her life today (that is, from the time she left "that place" many years ago). No such autobiographical detail penetrates the flow of words, written in the present tense, with which she describes her life "there." This is an important point, because the flow of words do not belong "there" but belong "here." It belongs to the language she employs in order to provide her testimony of that hell, that childhood under the wing of a mother who is as powerful as a fairy-tale, who is courageous, who inspires wonder and admiration, who perhaps even symbolizes a neo-liberal ethos, such as "Hard work can improve your life."

The little girl is inside, in the life she led before she became an author. She is a bookworm, a very quiet but also a very curious little girl: "For hours, she would conceal herself in hiding places, which she did not call hiding places, in the compressed dark that surrounded her from head to foot. The inner kernel of the inner kernel of an inner kernel, she was profoundly distant and muffled, like the belly of a submarine on the ocean's floor."

Matalon is not being ironic. She simply wants us to listen to her story, the story of someone who has survived a major fire. The bulk of the text is hers. All the scenes take place inside her monologue. And she provides an extensive commentary. In fact, there are very few scenes without any commentary.

Here is one example: "And there was Lenny, one of a series of dogs she brought. Mother always had a shrouded look whenever she gazed at Lenny and she would say, 'I don't know what magic this rascal Lenny had, but, the moment I saw him, he just melted my heart.' A short while after the little girl contracted a severe case of pneumonia and was hospitalized, her mother found another home for Lenny, but she immediately took him back. The next day, he was run over by a car. She fell on his neck, as he lay there, dead, on the roadway, and her body was smeared with his blood."

Here Matalon avoids not only commentary but also "mimesis," which is always accompanied by commentary, because an imitation of life depends on "our" common sense.

Sparing quotes

It is not that the others are silent. Everyone talks in this narrative; however, they are quoted only sparingly. Their words are testimony to a language that is almost comical, consisting of a melange of Arabic and French. Here is a description of her mother in the context of the little girl's commentary: "She would watch 'Camille' again and again. Every time she saw the film was a festive event for her, and she regarded the heroine with tremendous awe. She would talk about her, and sometimes with her, incessantly, and, at all times, in a low, choked voice that suddenly became so gentle, suddenly refined itself in the presence of the tubercular, spiritual thinness of that holy prostitute, Marguerite Gautier. When her mother talked about Marguerite, she would focus primarily on one scene, the dramatic, shocking scene when Marguerite Gautier is crucified."

Her mother's explanation of Marguerite's emotional turmoil goes beyond these words. However, she is not quoted. There are also no monologues from any of the book's characters. Instead, there is a translation into the narrator's language. This is, of course, the problem of mimesis or realism: The "low" characters are always left out of the language of both the readers and the narrator.

Actually, this is the problem of the Ashkenazi community, or, at least, of its "aesthetic police." Perhaps the reading collective has no patience for any other language. Matalon does not say "no" to this collective, if I am not mistaken. Perhaps her "no" is, in fact, directed toward the "politics of identity." Perhaps her liberty has been preserved thanks to this caution, not knowing the "impossible" language.

In any event, the book abandons the almost-mute mother and focuses instead on her young daughter, who is very mature for her age, who makes a little room for her mother, who seeks to adopt her, so they will be two isolated individuals. However, the little girl cannot do so without removing the world that separates them. This problem of separation is the central issue in "The Sound of Our Steps."

Matalon mobilizes a severe, censoring structure of fragmentation that is totally under her control. Her subjectivity is constructed only by means of emigration from the place of her birth. Her mother's memory troubles her and never allows her to truly emigrate. This kind of bildungsroman negates any form of consciousness, and not just historical consciousness. Matalon consciously compresses herself and limits herself to the aesthetics of images and to commentary on them.

The "big Other" with whom she strongly identifies and with whom she converses about her mother (whom she tries to love, perhaps so the memory of her mother will stop tormenting her) is a liberal, nonpolitical. She leaves politics - and her father, who abandoned his family - out of her book: "When the little girl was 5, Morris visited the cabin for the first time. This was the first time when she could encompass in her consciousness that constantly studied occasion, which she had packed into her mental suitcase and which had a thoroughly tested beginning, middle and end. An occasion that she could remember for the first time through her own eyes, not through the eyes of others or through the words of their eyes."

Let us forget for the moment her belief that she can remember by herself and not "through the eyes of others." These are Matalon's aesthetics, this is her meticulous commentary on what she wants to be seen: "Five mornings a week she would clean the house of Rabbi Netanel and his wife, a childless couple residing in Savyon. If they asked her to come on Friday as well, when they were having guests over for a Sabbath meal or for some other reason, all hell broke loose: 'Friday is my day,' she would cry, boiling with anger, 'Friday is my day. I would go totally berserk if I did not have Friday.' Nonetheless, she would go to their home. She could never say 'no' to Netanel."

Matalon then goes on to depict the character of the affluent residents of Savyon, providing both a visual and an emotional description. She even waives her "right" to interpret her mother's obedience, although everything her mother does in the cabin expresses her immense strength. Giving up on consciousness means also that waiving. Although she describes her mother's thoughts in several places in the book, here, for the first time, as her mother's coherence as a strong person collapses, Matalon runs away.

Strict regime

However, the strict regime of separation - "now" from "then," "here" from "there," the copiously detailed from what is given only a passing reference, "private" from "public" - is not always successful. At the high points in the novel Matalon's divisions become confused and reveal her ambition: The rebuilding of her family within the context of that life, the rebirth of the little girl who can grow up with a mother and a father. The Netanels from Savion want to adopt the little girl and to provide her with a good, comfortable home. Her mother refuses: "She spoke with Rabbi Netanel: 'You are a good man,' she said to Rabbi Netanel. 'In our circle, we don't hand over our children to others. No matter what happens, we just don't hand over our children to others.'"

In one fell swoop, in this scene the reader is given the answer to what continually puzzles Matalon in the novel: Was her birth an "accident"? Suddenly, this question is provided a new answer: The little girl is reborn in her mother's reply to the people from Savion.

Nevertheless, what does the mother mean by "In our circle"? Her family? Egyptian Jews? Oriental or Sephardic Jews? Throughout the novel, this distinction is erased from both the mother's and the daughter's discourse. Suddenly we ask ourselves: How did the writer manage to erase all the places where the mother distinguished between "among us" and "among them" and between "in our circle" and "in their circle"?

The occasional visit from the little girl's father, who is thin, dark-skinned and handsome, also performs the function of causing the daughter to be reborn into a "normal" family, which the young child never had - she admits that fact in the finest chapters in the book. At a certain point in the novel, the eldest daughter, Corinne, comes to the realization that the child loves her father, always waits for him patiently, maintaining a silent vigil. For that reason, Corinne orders her not to love him because he left, because he abandoned his family. At this point, the little girl says "no." This is the first, and only, time she displays any stubbornness.

Here she constructs another family, a normal one, in addition to the one in which she grew up. This alternative, small family, does not need words "from long ago"; instead, it needs the words of the mature author. Fueled by the power supplied by the description of a mute childhood, Matalon partially fills the role of her mother: She offers a sacrifice. She sacrifices "all of the truth" in return for a truth that has been formulated on the basis of a compromise with the system of symbols, of signs, with "our" language (not "theirs"). In return, she receives her subjectivity from the "big Other": "You are an author."

Beyond the plot itself, the citations from the pamphlets of Morris Matalon and from his articles on discrimination against Sephardic Jews constitute additional testimony that does not intermesh into the story, but is proof of the daughter's possible feelings of loyalty to his truth. She is prepared to consider him, like the others in the narrative, a frail elderly person; however, she perhaps also promises us that, at some stage, she will be able - after having recorded her trauma - to return to her truth and to deal with it.