The Wonder of Shai Agnon, Now in Vivid Image

Shay Charka’s graphic novel doesn’t settle for a simplistic illustration of Agnon’s stories, but rather proffers its own bold interpretation.

A Shay Ve’Agnon: Shlosha Sipurim (“Three Stories”‏), by S. Y. Agnon; illustrated by Shay Charka. Schocken Publishing House ‏(Hebrew) 48 pages, NIS 69

A few years ago a collection of three stories by S. Y. Agnon was published under the title “An Orange Peel,” with lovely illustrations by Lee Kurzweil and enlightening commentary by Shai Rudin ‏(Schocken, 2008‏). Now a new collection has come out as a graphic novel drawn by Israeli cartoonist and illustrator Shay Charka, two of whose stories, “From Foe to Friend” and “Fable of the Goat,” were included in the earlier anthology.

JIBF 2013 – Latest news and reviews from Jerusalem International Book Fair

The hard-hearted and narrow-minded will say: Why was it necessary to publish the same stories again after so short a time? But those in whose soul culture and literature beat fiercely will surely have no complaints. Because real culture is to a large extent like a healthy tree − its roots are deep, its branches proliferate, its leaves bloom, and each year it develops new buds and fruit with a fresh and surprising taste.

There is hardly any text by Agnon that does not echo the origins of Hebrew culture − the Bible and the Midrash, the Talmud and the Aggadah. And seeing as Agnon’s writings always contain both literal and figurative meanings, they have become in themselves an endless source of commentary for scholars and also for many ordinary readers, who view Agnon as one of the greatest writers in the Hebrew language throughout the generations.

Shay Charka approaches Agnon’s stories as a visual interpreter. He does not settle for simplistic illustration of the three stories but expresses his own view of the meaning behind the setting and characters. The visual rendering of “From Foe to Friend,” a first-person description of the protagonist’s persistent attempts to settle down in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot despite harassment by “the wind” ‏(this is a story that most Israelis will have read in school‏), actually adheres to the text fairly closely; what stands out most about what Charka brings of himself is the depiction of the narrator as the young Agnon, as well as Charka’s telling images of early-20th-century Jerusalem.

“Fable of the Goat” is more complex. Over the years, the text has invited numerous interpretations from scholars and readers, for it is structured as a traditional Jewish legend and may lead someone with a developed imagination to reach many and varied conclusions. It recounts the story of a magical goat that has been graced with a mysterious capacity for kefitzat haderekh, a kabbalistic term that refers to the possibility of covering long distances in a short time, and in the case of the goat and the son of the goat’s owner, leaping in one bound through a cave from Poland to the Land of Israel.

The story contains many references to verses from Song of Songs, that extraordinary text in the biblical canon that managed to squeeze its way in only because of the belief that it does not deal with the mundane love between a man and a woman but with the eternal love between the people of Israel and its god. The love described in Song of Songs is not a sweet and problem-free love. Despite the great passion expressed therein, it describes a convoluted and layered relationship, filled with difficulties and obstacles. “Fable of the Goat” is likewise not a simple and innocent tale about a magical landing in the Land of Israel. While one of the story’s characters does achieve a state of tranquility in the Holy Land, another one inadvertently makes a mistake that winds up terribly harming himself.

Charka adds another dimension to the already mysterious story. His portrayal of the cave that the goat and the goat-owner’s son go through on their way to the Land of Israel − a depiction that does not exist in the original story − introduces a new and even daring interpretation of the act of immigrating to and settling in Israel, and of the connection between this land and the Jews of the Diaspora. Thus the reader gets layer upon layer of possibilities for reading and understanding − from Song of Songs to “Fable of the Goat,” to Charka’s images. All are options that allow curious and questioning readers to be commentators in their own right and try to analyze a large and convoluted allegory that touches on the very essence of the Jewish people.

The final story, “The Architect and the Emperor,” is perhaps the oddest and most enigmatic of the three. Reading the text invites a wide array of possible interpretations, more universal and ars-poetical than the other two stories. It is a very short story, about an emperor who commissions a palace from an architect he venerates. But the architect is fed up with “wood and stones,” so he paints a realistic image of a palace and presents this to the emperor. At first the emperor rejoices, “as it was the handsomest palace of all the palaces he had ever seen,” but when he grasps the hoax he becomes very angry at the architect and charges that he has been deceived. The architect, who in turn grows angry with the emperor and his accusations, knocks on the painted door of the structure, opens it, enters and never comes out again.

Here, too, Charka makes the writer a part of the story, and draws the architect as the elderly Agnon. This artistic decision deepens the possibilities for interpreting the story, and raises the notion of an allegory of Agnon and of his undisputed entry into the pantheon of the Hebrew nation’s greats, from which he will hopefully never depart.

The comics format, aside from being a medium replete with power and innovation, is a wonderful tool for conveying a story. For in contrast to traditional illustration, whose primary function is to support the text, a graphic novel gives words and image an equal role, and the possibility of having the characters speak and act dynamically ‏(like in a film or play‏) lends added value to both the words and the images.

This is not the first time − and let us hope it is not the last either − that Shay Charka has used the origins of Jewish culture and history to create wonderful graphic novels, full of humor and the little details that go into creating a world that is interesting and relevant in our own day. In a cultural atmosphere as compartmentalized as that of current Israel, in which there is an increasingly radical demarcation of two camps − global culture versus Jewish culture, as if there could be no overlap between them − Charka’s combination of respect for the past and for the present, of faith and a traditional lifestyle merged with critical analysis, is a special asset.

Agnon began his 1966 Nobel Prize acceptance speech with the words: “Our sages of blessed memory have said that we must not enjoy any pleasure in this world without reciting a blessing. If we eat any food, or drink any beverage, we must recite a blessing over them before and after. If we breathe the scent of goodly grass, the fragrance of spices, the aroma of good fruits, we pronounce a blessing over the pleasure. The same applies to the pleasures of sight: When we see the sun in the Great Cycle of the Zodiac in the month of Nissan, or the trees first bursting into blossom in the spring, or any fine, sturdy and beautiful trees, we pronounce a blessing.” Well then, it seems this column is a literary blessing over the new, handsome and tasty fruit that ripened on the branches of the strong and beautiful tree Shmuel Yosef Agnon has planted in our culture.

Masha Zur Glozman is a book reviewer, cultural journalist and documentary-filmmaker.

Illustrations from the book, by Shay Charka