Archaeologist of the Soul

Natalie Mesika turns the remnants and fragments of the Roman era into a richer, more complete world that brings together Pompeii and the Galilee town of Yodfat

Doron Bar-Adon
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Doron Bar-Adon

Adama Shehora (Black Earth)

by Natalie Mesika Dofen Publishers (Hebrew), 338 pages, NIS 78

Between 66 and 70 C.E., Romans and Jews fought each other throughout the Land of Israel, most significantly in Jerusalem. The Lower Galilee town of Yodfat was captured by Vespasian in 67. And Yosef Ben-Matityahu, the leader of the Jewish revolt, surrendered and moved over to the Roman side, becoming the historian known as Josephus Flavius. Twelve years later, Mount Vesuvius erupted, and the volcano destroyed the southern Italian city of Pompeii.

Fast forward to contemporary times, to Israeli archaeologist Natalie Mesika, who has excavated at both the Yodfat site and Pompeii. While excavating Yodfat, she tells us in the foreword to this historical novel, she met a Bedouin girl who had discovered ancient coins in a pile of soil that had already been meticulously sifted and checked by professionals. That woman, the author says, made Mesika realize she could follow her intuition - the wisdom of the heart that gives added strength to feelings, emotions and primarily, the imagination.

"Black Earth," Mesika's first book, retells the well-known stories of Yodfat and Pompeii, in a way that inevitably links their shared fates. The novel flits back and forth between the Land of Israel and Roman Italy, and the descriptions of each complement the other. It has three narrators, who switch off in the telling, but their connections and the full picture of the narrative become clear only at the end of the book, which not only tells a story, but also addresses questions of fate, the logic of war, the existential state, the psychology of nationalism, contemporary politics and the human experience of the individual.

The opening words of one of the narrators, Yehuda, set the stage for suspense: "A strong southern wind is blowing the sail sheets, which flap wildly on the deck of the ship named after the goddess of war. I am leaning on the deck rail and the wind is spurring my thoughts, which split, like the sea, into two wings of doubt, between which lies a temporary path of arrogant and angry certainty."

Mesika restores the glory of the epic tale, writing in a style that reads like ancient mythology and is reminiscent of the Odyssey or perhaps the Book of Jonah, a style that carries through the entire book, which, surprisingly, ends with phrases from the Kaddish mourner's prayer. The tapestry she weaves is complex and demanding. It blurs the distinctions between different times and places, but as a whole, it heads inexorably toward its resolution, in which Yehuda fulfills his mother's two dying wishes: to meet with Josephus in Rome and to return to the Land of Israel, specifically Yodfat.

The complicated life story of Miriam, the main narrator, is told in the context of the glory and loss of Yodfat; of her sisters and other relatives; of her beloved, Elhanan, and his idealistic nature and fighting spirit; and of the Roman soldiers and their dramatic battle with the Jews. Other elements that feature in Miriam's tale include the dialectical personality of Yosef Ben-Matityahu, the life of Roman senator Julius Polybius in Pompeii, Miriam's loneliness and pride, and finally, the surprising epilogue to her life.

'Sicarii! Help me!'

Mesika's writing style changes in accordance with the plot developments. I enjoyed many of her descriptions, like that of the dramatic meeting between Yehuda and the dying Josephus, who is described as living in an empty palace, gripped by feelings of persecution and guilt over his betrayal. Yehuda, under instructions from Miriam, tries to get him to talk, making his arguments with sharp irony. But Josephus, convinced Yehuda is a member of a murderous Jewish sect, is too far gone to listen.

"And then suddenly Josephus shouts, 'Sicarii ... you're a Sicarii!' The egg-shaped head rose above the pillow and his hollow white eyes gaped at me with immense trepidation, his thin fingers tightly grasping the wool blankets with great strength, as though he were trying to defend himself with their assistance ... 'Help me, a despicable murderer has invaded my home ... '"

The author also does a good job of describing the eruption of Mount Vesuvius: "The earth, the sky, the entire city, shuddered in a constant and threatening rhythm. It seemed like the giant titans had arisen all at once from their long sleep and were now moving forward, insistently and heavily, from the black innards of the ancient goddess Gaia, goddess of the earth."

Another memorable passage is the one describing Miriam and Elhanan's last meeting, under the shadow of the battle for Yodfat, which is to begin at first light. In a line reminiscent of the Song of Songs, Mesika writes, "His left hand is beneath my head and his right is embracing me." In refraining from greater explicitness, the passage embodies the mythological spirit that prevails throughout the book.

The craftsmanship of archaeological excavations - which focus on remnants of buildings and fragments of dishes, and turn the gaps between the scientific facts into something that creates a whole - appears to be what inspired Mesika to embark on the literary path. She assembles the historical testimony that is only implied in Josephus' writings and the excavations, and builds from it a rich, more complete world of content and significance. Thus does Mesika go from being an archaeologist of science to an archaeologist of the soul.

The story of the destruction of Yodfat is about the clash between the Romans and the Jews, the occupier and the occupied, pride and humiliation, strength and weakness, and national fanaticism and familial intimacy, as well as the cruel cost of war. Mesika's extensive knowledge of history, archaeology and Jewish texts comes across in the novel, through explicit and implicit references, the description of events and atmosphere, and primarily, through language. The book is well-designed and easy to read, and the fact that the Hebrew is spelled as it generally is in the Torah (in "ktiv haser") rather than in modern non-vocalized text, which adds certain letters to simplify comprehension and pronunciation ("ktiv malei"), adds to the feeling that one is reading an ancient text.

The uniqueness and richness of "Black Earth" lies primarily in its ability to rebuild lives of an earlier period in all their intimacy, their daily reality, and their conversations and emotions, while creating its own historical mythology, like the concept that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius was divine punishment for the destruction of Yodfat.

The description of Miriam's fate, meanwhile, reaches its exciting and fascinating climax at the end of the book, which retains its dramatic tension until the last page. The literary wisdom of the heart overcomes scientific thinking. The spirit of the Bedouin girl who discovered coins in soil that had already been sifted is what gives, enriches and interprets, and what remains etched in our perception and memory.

Doron Bar-Adon is an artist. He is the author of "Dimuyim Veyamim" ("Images in Time"), an art memoir published by Kinneret Zmora-Bitan (Hebrew).