Tongue-tied on the Page

Maya Sela
Maya Sela
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Maya Sela
Maya Sela

Before novelist David Markish immigrated to Israel from Russia, he dreamt of switching languages and starting to write in Hebrew. "It didn't work. I'm hopeless when it comes to languages. There's this inner fear that I'll be a nothing in this language and also in this other language. I immigrated to Israel at the age of 34 and no longer had any chance."

He continued to write his books, 15 so far, in Russian.

Markish's books and stories have been translated into many languages and have won international prizes.

The hero of his new book (Hamalakh Hashahor in Hebrew) is Yehuda Grossman, who bears a likeness to the Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel, who was born in Odessa in 1894.

In 1920, Babel joined the cavalry unit commanded by [Field Marshall] Semyon Budyonny. Markish wrote the book after being inspired by Babel's recollections in his journals and in the book "Red Cavalry," but he calls the book an anti-biography, as it is not bound by historical truth.

"For me the important thing was to review the identity of the Jew in a foreign environment and alongside foreigners," he says, "to consider the connection between Babel and the Cossacks. Babel wants to be like the Cossacks, but can he? He cannot.

"Hanoch Bartov once told me a story - and he also wrote it in one of his books - that in Italy during the war, when he served in the Jewish Brigade, they caught some woman who was the widow of an SS officer, and some of the guys wanted to rape and then kill her. She started crying and telling stories. In the end, they gave her food and tobacco. This is the Jews."

In 1935, Babel was permitted to visit his wife, who lived in Paris, but he chose not to remain there and returned to the Soviet regime.

In 1939, he was arrested on suspicion of spying, tried and executed.

"I wanted to understand the identity of the intellectual Jew," says Markish, "how he feels, what he feels, why he went back to Russia when he had the opportunity to flee from there; what is this power of the exiles? The matter of the exiles is important.

Markish was born in 1939 in Moscow. His father, Peretz Markish, the well-known Yiddish writer, poet and playwright, was executed in 1952 for being a "Jewish nationalist" and an enemy of the regime.

His family was exiled to Kazakhstan, but was rehabilitated after the death of Stalin and returned to Moscow in 1955.

He immigrated to Israel in 1972, after being a refusenik (the Soviet authorities prohibited from immigrating to Israel) for many years. "They never explained the refusal.

Six times our request was rejected, and when they granted approval, that also was given without explanation."

Were you concerned about the fate of your writing when you immigrated?

"I did not think about it. I had wanted to immigrate to Israel since the age of 17. On the whole, I was not sure I would continue working as a professional writer; I was willing to accept that not happening. Perhaps that is why I didn't suffer a blow from it. The moment I stepped off the plane, I felt that here is mine."

He talks about the progression of languages in his family; "My father spoke Yiddish, I spoke Russian and my children speak Hebrew. My son Perets [an actor] thinks he understands Russian well, but he doesn't understand a thing," he laughs. "The circle has closed. My father did know Hebrew, the sacred language, but he did not write in Hebrew. I think he could have, but Yiddish was for him like air to breathe."

The fact that you write in a foreign language doesn't bother you?

"It's not a big problem. If I would use Hebrew, perhaps I might have more opportunities to advance in the profession. Some of my books were killed in the translation to Hebrew, but I accept it. To switch languages is something I am unable to do - what could I do?"

In Israel, there are many Russian readers who could be your audience.

"If you go look in Moscow today at what is sold at book stalls on the street, you will see that 98 percent are cookbooks or detective novels in the worst possible language or mystical writings or all kinds of nonsense and only 2 or 3 percent are literature as we understand it. It's the same here among the Russians."

To Markish, Babel is one of the most interesting and best Russian-language writers, although not necessarily the greatest.

"For me, there is one name in post-revolution Russian literature, and that is Andrei Platonov. He's a genius. Before the revolution, there was one more, and that is Ivan Bunin. But Babel is one of the best."

Even though Markish calls his book an anti-biography, Markish says there are historical events such as Babel's meeting Ze'ev Jabotinsky. "Everyone was sure that was a fantasy of mine, but it's not. They got together, and Jabotinsky asked him to travel to Palestine, to come as a writer. They had a conversation between writers." Markish says he took this from the report of the secret police. "The interrogator asked him if he had a meeting with Jabotinsky, and Babel responded in the affirmative."

In the book, Jabotinsky tells Yehuda Grossman (Babel's alter ego) something like: Is it not enough for you to be yourself?

That means that famous writers also suffer from this typical illness of exile. Grossman responds by asking who am I if not a Diaspora Jew, a Russian Jew and are you not one, too?

Jabotinsky, Markish notes, divides all Jews into two groups, those who want to go to Palestine and those who prefer to remain in the Palestines where they were born. All the rest does not interest him - literature, the foibles of the heart and poppy-seed cookies for the Sabbath. In the end, when Jabotinsky realized that Babel did not intend to go to Palestine, he pulled out his address book and erased his name from it. "That is already an invention of mine," says Markish.

As a writer, Markish says he is closer to Babel than to his father: "Babel was a Russian writer, and my father was a Jewish writer. I am a Jewish writer who works in the Russian language, like Babel. He was also close to the subject of the Jews, it was more than 50 percent of his nature. He also knew Yiddish, of course, but wrote in Russian. My father knew Russian very well, but wrote only in Yiddish, and because of that he did not live here. In 1923, he was in Palestine and lived here for six months. Then he left, only because he had no future here in that language."

He tells of a letter that Peretz Markish wrote in 1926 "before all the problems." He wrote that the Soviet regime was killing Yiddishkeit, that he wanted to leave Russia, "but that he did not believe he had a chance of getting out. And in fact, they did not let him out."

Markish says that if the State of Israel had been established in Babel's time, perhaps the writer would have come here. "I have been an Israeli for 40 years. Anyone who does not want to experience anti-Semitism should come here. But that's not why I think there is no place for us in other countries; it's because those places are not ours. The feeling that 'this is mine' is important."

Markish was as an adviser to Yitzhak Rabin on Russian immigration. After Rabin's assassination, he no longer wanted to be involved in politics.

Is he disappointed by the Zionist dream?

He says the country is headed "in a dangerous direction today, and we should not be playing such games. We do not know what our place is, and that is dangerous. Ben-Gurion said that it is unimportant what the gentiles say, what is important is what the Jews do. Today, this is no longer appropriate. The world has changed. The difference between Israel in 1972, when I immigrated to Israel, and Israel of today is like the difference between night and day. But like Churchill said, it may be a dog, but it's our dog."



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