"I wrote `Dyukan Atzmi b'Gil 27' (Self-Portrait at Age 27), in which I compressed a whole year into three months, on a very pleasant Greek island, but since then I am afraid of overly innocent attempts to dispel my fear of autobiographic writing, a fear that is perhaps nothing but terror in the face of time."
At the awards ceremony in Herzliya on Monday, Tsalka was surprised by the prize. He competed against two veteran Israeli authors who are identified with the Palmach (pre-state militia) generation - Hanoch Bartov and Yoram Kaniuk - and two young authors just starting out - Dudu Busi and Dror Burstein, and the whole time felt that his chances of winning first prize were slim.
"Even though someone recommended I write a short speech for the ceremony, I did not do so, because my chances of winning looked so small," he said, overcome with emotion, as he stood on the stage Monday, and thanked the Sapir fund and Xargol publishing, "for not abandoning me at age 68."
Afterward, resting on a chair outside the photo studio in Herzliya while noisy trucks unloaded and picked up equipment, and the bouquet of flowers Tsalka had received at the ceremony still lay in his lap, he admitted that the prize - NIS 150,000 - is very important to him. The Israel Prize is also important to him.
"That is a sentimental prize," he says, but the Sapir Prize to him is more likely to promote the exposure of his books among the general public, which still does not recognize his name. "The monetary aspect of the prize is also very important to me."
Tsalka, a refined and pleasant man, is a man of culture in the European sense of the word. Since he was a child, he relates, he has always been terrified of time. "Perhaps it is a fear of death," he says. This could be the reason he chose to write his autobiography in the form of a lexicon, and not as a story with chronological continuity.
Inspired by the book by Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, "Milosz's Alphabet Book," Tsalka wrote a dictionary whose entries are people and events from his life.
"By evading the chronological continuity I feel more alive, more energetic," explains Tsalka. "I have no weaknesses instilled in me by time. Ths I wander in time and extract from it the strongest and most stable foundations of life, even if they are sad."
Tsalka was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1936. At the beginning of World War II he escaped with his family to the Ukraine and from there they were exiled to Siberia. Later they moved to Kazakhstan. At the age of 10 he returned to Poland, where he finished high school and then studied philosophy and literature at university. He immigrated to Israel with his family in 1957 and they initially lived in an immigrant encampment in Yavneh.
After his military service Tsalka studied history and general literature at Tel Aviv University, and he began writing literary columns in Haaretz. He began writing Hebrew prose in the 1950s, while he was living in France.
"When one writes, `I was born at such and such a time,' one later has to fill in the details of one's whole life, and I am afraid of that," says Tsalka. "In most of the biographies that I have read, I found that there was always a strange boredom that usually appeared in the second half of life, when the writer had already become successful. The form that I chose for writing this book allowed me to use many genres of writing under each letter - a portrait of someone, a side remark, a short story, the description of a figure, a poem rewritten as prose - and could thus give the foundations of life the importance and depth they have at that moment.
"The crunching of gravel on the path in Zichron Yaakov reminded me of my history teacher," continues Tsalka. "It is like Proust's madeleine, which has already become a literary cliche. It's just that here I tried to take off the pretext and leave it with the experience of the present."
Tsalka also worked as a literary editor and has published many books, including novels, collections of short stories, poems, a play, essays, novels for teens, a travelogue to Morocco and translations of poetry. Among his works (published in Hebrew) are: "Yaldei Ha-Shemesh" (Children of the Sun), Hakibbutz Hameuchad, (1979); "Kfafot" (Gloves) Am Oved, (1982); "Simaniyot" (Bookmarks) Hakibbutz Hameuchad, (1987); "Elef Levavot" (A Thousand Hearts), Am Oved, (1991); "Dr. Barkel," Massada, (1993); "Yehoash Ve-Rochvei Ha-Merkavah Ha-Shmeimit" (Yehoash and the Chariot), Zmora Bitan, (1997); and "Besiman Halotus" (Sign of the Lotus), Hargol (2002).
Tsalka has won the Brenner Prize, the Prime Minister's Creativity Prize, the Alterman Prize and the ACUM (Association of Composers, Authors and Publishers of Music in Israel) Prize. He lives with his wife in Tel Aviv and they have two children, one living in the U.S. and the other in Italy.
Today Tsalka no longer grapples with questions of identity - Jewish or Israeli.
"I do not think whether I am Israeli, Jewish, secular or Western," says Tsalka. "I am a Tel Avivian, that is my Israeliness."
Tsalka, who has often earned praise from critics but not broad distribution among the reading public, competed Monday for the Sapir prize against two better known authors, Bartov and Kaniuk. "For some reason Tsalka has not entered the Israeli literary canonic consciousness," says Yitzhak Livni, who heads the panel of judges for the prize, "even though the critics have often praised him. Perhaps it is because he is so full of knowledge and completely steeped in European literature and philosophy, of the Old World, the Renaissance, and also the Jewish world, and this finds expression in his writing, which is reminiscent of authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, or Aldous Huxley, from the perspective of the cultural scope and knowledge.
"His choice of words, of sentences, of plots and portrayals of characters, is done quietly, cautiously, in moderation, as if he were using pastel or watercolors. His is more veiled writing, compared to writing with oil paints, in shades of red, black, blue or orange, to which Israeli readers are perhaps more accustomed."
The ceremony and the common denominator
The Sapir Prize for literature awards ceremony, which was broadcast Monday on Channel 2, embarrassed many of those present, who criticized the low level of the performances between the ceremonial parts of the evening, some of which were reminiscent of the early days of commercial television, when the right balance had not yet been found between cultural messages and the appeal to the broad common denominator. One of the prize panel judges, Dr. Ronny Halperin, left the hall in protest during the ceremony.
"The criticism of the ceremony is justified," said the chairman of the panel of judges, Yitzhak Livni. "This ceremony wanted to run away from literature. Its basic assumption was that even though a program about literature is being presented, the viewers will flee if it deals with books, so the audience has to be given humorous sketches, and instead of speaking about books, they spoke with a presenter on the children's channel, a model, whose main statement was that she did not read books, and a soccer player.
"[Children's show host] Dalik Vilinitz moderated the panel and he did not even deny [this]. He said, `We did it so you would not run away on us.' There were respected authors there, such as S. Yizhar and Haim Gouri, and they were personally offended. They had to applaud every time the assistant producer told them to, and they were not pleased with this. It is a shame, because literature can be telegenic if it is done properly, and in previous years - particularly last year - there were nice events."
The ceremony, which was broadcast on the network, earned relatively high viewer ratings for the late hour at which it was aired, reaching 8 percent viewership at a certain stage.
"This year we wanted to broadcast the ceremony on Channel 1 [as in previous years]," said Tamar Guy, head of the Mifal Hapayis Council for Arts and Culture, "but unfortunately they preferred to show soccer. I hope that next year the ceremony will return to being broadcast in its natural environment, on Channel 1, but from my point of view Channel 2 is a step up. Mifal Hapayis enjoys doing things for their own sake, but not only - all the money allocated for culture is accompanied by advertising and public relations aimed at reaching the broadest public and telling them that their money from the purchase of lottery tickets is going to important causes."
"I do not want to argue about the level of the ceremony," continued Guy. "There are a lot of people who say that the ceremony was light and entertaining. Shirley Glick came as a dyslexic who makes every effort to read books, Tal Musari spoke intelligently, and it was certainly a big surprise to see a soccer player who is also a filmmaking student. True, this is the character of Channel 2; it is lighter and surprising by definition. Why not have an independent elegant ceremony that Mifal Hapayis will produce, and let the television station film it if it so desires? Why does it have to be a TV production?
"The station has to want to broadcast it, and does not work for me," explains Guy. "If I want Channel 2 to come and film, I will make a ceremony with content that it would want to broadcast, content that fits the ratings' dynamics. Next year, if we go back to Channel 1, it will have a different character. We will take the whole matter under consideration. I have no problem with differences of opinion. I do have a problem with overly discerning people."
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