Memoir / Unending Swim to Freedom

Slava Kurilov was the only person to flee the Soviet Union by swimming. His adventures continued, until he met his death in Lake Kinneret 11 years ago.

Levad Ba'okiyanus (Alone at Sea)

by Slava Kurilov and Gal Kusturica Ma'ariv Books (Hebrew), 174 pages, 79 shekels

At a certain point in the process known as growing up, most of us realize that the time has come to give up our childhood heroes. We may have loved Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" and Jules Verne's "In Search of the Castaways," but then we understood that adventures like those belong to the past and take place now only in books and on screen. It's better that way. Seagoing romance has no connection to our daily lives as grown-ups.

This is the adventure at the heart of the book and the story with which it ends, though the tortuous tale of Kurilov's life continued for some time after. He was deported from the Philippines to Canada, where his sister lived; he traveled, mostly in South America, where he nearly fell prey to local members of an organized crime ring and briefly realized his lifelong dream of living in the wilds of a jungle. Then he came to Israel, not because he was Jewish (he wasn't), but because two filmmakers here had proposed making a documentary about his adventures. The movie was never made, but Kurilov met the love of his life, Lena Gendelev, whom he married. He worked as an oceanographer in Haifa for Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research, a government company that comprises three research institutes, until his death in a 1998 diving accident in the Kinneret, at the age of 62. His notebooks were edited and published first by his wife in Russian, then re-edited and translated into Hebrew for this edition by Gal Kusturica, who also added elements from Kurilov's life that he himself had not included.

Two factors enabled Kurilov to keep himself free of totalitarian brainwashing, both of which reflect a special kind of spiritual faith: a spiritual belief unconnected to any organized religion, and certainly not to the Russian Orthodox church, and Kurilov's expertise in advanced yoga techniques. This yoga training, which involved many years of mental and physical exercises and extended fasting, made Kurilov exceptionally fit - and helped him develop an impressive ability to conserve his breath, a skill without which he could not have survived three days at sea.

But even taking his physical fitness into account, Kurilov's story is still one of leaping into the unknown and surviving against all odds. He overcame life-threatening circumstances, including his inability to know his exact geographic location or to plan where he would jump from, and the dangers of sharks and exhaustion; a boat almost mowed him down after his jump and giant waves nearly killed him as he neared the shore. These circumstances strengthen readers' feelings that this is a heroic story, a kind of symbol of the human struggle for freedom.

This message - which exists in dialogue with the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway's "Old Man and the Sea," who collapses physically but is not defeated emotionally in his contest with the sea - lets the reader know that it is not Kurilov's yogic breath control that is key, but rather the attempt to reject certainty, solid and promising though it may be, and risk danger to swim toward freedom, even when it is not visible on the horizon.