Reviews of Elisha Porat's work:
Kim Hegerberg says of The Messiah of LaGuardia, by Elisha Porat:
Definitely one of the finest short story collections available by a single writer offered in english translation. I will warn you though, definitely have a huge box of tissues before you start reading this collection. The Messiah of LaGuardia is a series of short stories, many of which are based around characters whose lives are somehow intertwined with various wars. From Ben Niflay, whose subconscious begins to break apart as he faces yet another deployment to the war in Lebanon, to survivors of wars who find their futures entangled with the emptiness and nightmares of their pasts.
[ ... ] What makes Porat's writing so wonderful is his use of emotional imagery. There is little to no concentration on external circumstances or settings as most all settings are on various kibbutzim. He concentrates on the internal conflicts of his characters with such accuracy that the sheer realism of it all will draw you so deeply into these peoples lives that you end up crying with them.
Kim Hegerberg is a freelance book reviewer. The review extract is taken from her internet website.
International Book Reviews. Bestsellers and hard to find treasures. 1999.
Jack Fischel says:
The six stories in this volume provide an excellent introduction to Elisha Porat's work.Leonard Deutchman says:
Since 1973, Elisha Porat, the winner of the 1996 Prime Minister Literature Prize, has written more than a dozen works of fiction and poetry in Hebrew. The six stories in TheMessiah of LaGuardia provide an excellent introduction to his work for the American reading public, thanks to a fine translation by Alan Sacks.
The title story concerns an israeli who believes Israel's war in Lebanon is a disastrous mistake. Called back to active duty, Ben Niflay decides to save the nation by proclaiming his messiahship. He sincerely believes that the country will rally behind his message. He expects that the reserves called up for active duty will refuse to board in trucks leaving for Lebanon.
This does not occur, and Niflay realizes that "he had made a mistake; he had thought that the whole city would join with him. He had thought that the streets would turn black with a mass of humanity, that all the soldiers in the arena's giant parking lot...would scatter through the yards, cheering and singing, celebrating wildly, leaping for joy at their freedom".
Having failed to gain the support of the people and the soldiers, Niflay readies himself for martyrdom, with the realization that his country is not yet ready for this particular messiah.
The Little Bridge Below Ufana is a triangular love story involving a woman, her husband and his friend, Goel. Goel is at his friend's side when he killed in Syrian ambush. The story revolves around Ayalla, the young widow, and her determination to learn whether everything was done to prevent the ambush, and around Goel's guilt about the opportunity his fiend's death has provide him in his pursuit of Ayalla, whom he has always loved.
In The Three Stages of Perfection, the anti-intellectual aspect of Kibbutz life is examined. The story centers around Kibbutznik, Zikhri Ben-Yehuda, who bears the same last name as the father of modern Hebrew, Eliezer ben-Yehuda. Yet the story's Ben-Yehuda finds only indifference among his fellow Kibbutzniks in regard to his love of the Hebrew language.
The first five of Porat's stories are devoid of humor. But there is a great humor in The Aging Poet, the story of a middle-age poet, Yinon Yehudai, who has grown tired of his wife and falls on love with a young American. She has been sent to Israel by her parents because her mother "likes to keep informed about all the modern religious movements".
The story works because many of us are familiar with the phenomenon of young American Jewish women going to Israel and winding up in serious relationships with israelis. Although the young woman, Patricia, is portrayed as something of a twit, she nevertheless serves Porat's thesis that israel requires the influx of fresh ideas from the Diaspora if it is so invigorate its cultural life.
Jack Fischel teaches in a Millersville University, Philadelphia.
In The Messiah of LaGuardia, the first collection of short stories by Israeli writer Elisha Porat to be translated into English, we see men whose lives have been fractured, who have found - in a manner often surprising to themselves - little spiritual fulfillment in helping to build the State of Israel, and little pleasure or comfort in sex, love, or friendship. The narratives themselves, like their characters, are fractured, sewn together by rhetorical, leading questions that suggest, but never supply, answers. For Porat, 1995 Winner of Israel's prestigious Prime Minister's Prize for Literature, "truth" is an illusion of distance, which dissolve into unanswered and, perhaps, unanswerable questions as we approach it. Although this grim paradox is particularly troubling to Jews because it arises out of the
idealistic project of building the modern Jewish state, Porat's concerns go beyond the historical.
In the collection's title story, Ben Niflay, an Army reservist called up to Lebanon in 1984, refuses to join his unit at the staging area and winds his way toward the madness of sniping from atop a building on LaGuardia Street in Tel Aviv. We enter his thoughts, projections of a dreaded future (a boring bus ride to the front with a fatuous reporter) and memories of the past. We watch him imaging himself speaking from atop the building, leading the Jewish people to peace and to the accomplishment of "everything that could have come in his life but hadn't." We see him drag his young family with him to the roof and set up his arsenal; we watch the police snipers get into position.
But as the story approaches its climax, the narrative is supplanted by a summary of newspaper story. The news story is surprisingly somber, wholly unlike the reporter. It splits into parallel narratives, one which follows Niflay's convoy as it is attacked, while the other, a poem entitled, "The Messiah of LaGuardia", describes the police snipers as they overcome Niflay. Neither narrative reveals what
finally happens to their protagonists: the convoy take "casualties, it's still not clear how many"; and, as for the Messiah of LaGuardia, "what happened next is unknown". We are left with two incomplete newspaper accounts and come away from them knowing that, despite having been in his thoughts, we have not come to know Ben Niflay.
Porat returns to several of the title story's concerns - whether we can understand the world around us and fashion happiness in such a world - throughout the collection. In At the Little Bridge Below Ufana, Goel Zikhrony, a 31 year-old bachelor, cannot explain how Kobi, his best friend, was killed in an inconsequential Syrian ambush in 1969, even though Zikhrony fought and was wounded in the same battle. Ayalla, Kobi's widow, who in grief has become Zikhrony's lover, demands an explanation, but he accepts that he will never understand the turns and mistakes of the battle, or how his life changed for the better because of it, or how Kobi will share Ayalla's and his bed despite, and because, of Kobi's death.
In The Three Stages of Perfection, Zikhri Ben-Yehuda stands between a past he struggles to remember and forget and a present that seems unreal. We enter his thoughts and learn of his childhood in Poland, his alienation from the other members of his Kibbutz, his passion for, or perhaps obsession with, semitic etymology. We learn of his position at the factory, and his eccentric philosophy of work safety through which, he believes, he has found both purity and transcendence. His life, empty of material gain and social standing, is, in his vocabulary, as "spotless" as the factory floor should be. Yet he fails when he tries to explain this to his neighbors, who regard his philosophy as "gibberish"; his perfect language, incomprehensible to others, is no language at all. He sees himself
achieving perfection with his suicide, but when we leave him we are again outside, as baffled as to who he was as when we met him.
Porat's protagonists, whether celibate, faithfully married, or adulterers, are all men without women. Yehuda Etrogi, who emigrated to Israel before the Holocaust and was a hero of the elite Palmach during the War of Independence, lives alone guarding distrustful kibbutzim in the "Guardian of the fields". Clara, a young volunteer, briefly enters and leaves his life without explanation. The title character of The Farming Instructor, who has dedicated his life to improving farming techniques, marries at age 55, only to see his young wife abandon him and their infant daughter, also without explanation. Yinon Yehudai, title character of "The Aging Poet", escorts his mistress, a young American translator, around Tel Aviv, trying to find a place for a tryst which she will not let take place. Ben Niflay's wife is "poor", "wretched", an object of pity, not passion; Ayalla satisfies Goel Zikhrony's sexual desire but troubles him with questions about her husband's death; Zikhri Ben Yehuda's sexual biography is little more than memories of a flirtation of his youth. In the desert where Porat's characters live, women are, like "truth" as best a mirage of happiness and respite.
Porat's characters are the builders of modern Israel - the farmer, the kibbutz factory worker, the citizen soldier. Yet the world they have helped to build is unconcerned with their existence, indifferent to their happiness. The portrait that Porat paints of this world is disturbing, particularly to American Jews raised on Exodus (the one with Paul Newman, not Moses), the myth of Alyah - that through the heroic struggle of (re)building Israel all personal, political, and spiritual needs unite and are fulfilled.
The Messiah of LaGuardia, however, is not simply, or even principally, social commentary. Although his stories are grounded in the history of modern Israel, and particularly, its many wars, Porat, psychologist and historian, has the novelist's eye: like his Czech counterpart, Milan Kundera, he is as interested in how the universal articulates the spiritual, as in how politics fails to articulate the
spiritual, as in how politics shapes the individual. If there is any spiritual fulfillment in The Messiah Of La Guardia, it comes from the author's respect for the unknowable in a world of violent definitions.
Leonard Deutchman, a lawyer, is a prosecutor in the office of the District Attorney of Philadelphia. This review appeared in Midstream, February/March 1998.
The Messiah of LaGuardia, by Elisha Porat, translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks.
Mosaic Press, Oakville, ON, Canada. pp. 1996. paperback $ 14.95.
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