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published in "Shetland life" April 2004

Sailing towards Shetland / Avner Shats

In 1985, fresh out of University, I was spending some time in London, as many young people from this troubled part of the Middle East tend to do. I was planning a trip to Scotland with my girlfriend, and was looking around a tourist information center near Victoria for bus and train schedules, youth hostels in Edinburgh and the like, when I saw a colorful brochure suggesting a visit to Shetland. Something clicked, I still don't know why. I only had very dim notions of Shetland at the time; bits of obscure memories, and eclectic facts gathered at random, rushed through my mind: ponies, North Sea oil, knitwear. The brochure offered more: Viking heritage, puffins, and white nights. I knew I had to get there. Luckily, my girlfriend – now the mother of my two daughters – went along with the idea, despite her suffering from seasickness. As for me, I have a soft spot for the sea: I graduated from the Israeli Maritime College, sailed as a cadet in the merchant marine and served in the Israeli navy (in rather unlikely locations, such as the Dead Sea.) We couldn't afford flying to Shetland and even the ferry from Edinburgh was a bit expensive. Instead, we chose to travel up to John O'groats by land, on to Orkney by boat, and then board the "Akerberg" sailing to Scalloway. Our actual visit to Shetland was brief but unforgettable. We took pictures, we had nice rides to famous attractions, we stayed at the Lerwick youth hostel and waited for the sunset, followed shortly by sunrise – it was late June. Our schedule was tight, we had plane tickets back home, and a few days later, on the Akerberg's next run, we left Shetland. But Shetland never left me. I had enough memories to last me many years.
To refresh my memory, I looked up these few details in my novel, "Sailing Towards the Sunset", published in 1998. The novel has many true-to-life details depicting my brief Shetland experience; generally, though, it is pure fiction, and the concept of the book is so complex as to render it unfit for mass consumption. And yet a small, select readership did like it – enough to win it a respectable prize (the Hebrew University Schweipert literary award) and to help inspire a unique, unpublished novel named "Sailing Towards The Sunset by Avner Shats", by Nell Zink. But this is a long, separate story. So the book, I'll be the first to admit, is ambitious – it has a basic plot, but its written in an array of different styles and has an annoyingly large number of digressions; I was aiming high, and trying to deal with many different issues. But one leitmotiv, which remains evident throughout, is the yearning to sail away, to travel afar. This is where Shetland comes in: Shetland is, in a way, the farthest place you can go to from Israel; a complete negative; an antipode, if not geographically then at least mentally. Israel, you probably know, is hot, hectic and always at the headlines. Shetland is anything but.

The book is also – perhaps mainly – a love story, between a young Israeli and a local girl, named Mary. I was well aware of the fact that what I find exotic, fresh and exciting is often mundane and boring for local people in far-off places, and vice versa; the sunny south, I'm sure, is fascinating and tempting for people of the north. And so, in some parts of the book, I tried to see Israel through the eyes of Mary – a bright, shrewd independent girl who shares with the protagonist the passion of traveling afar. She writes him letters, sometimes makes cynical remarks and acute observations, and being, generally, a major influence on the life of the hero – who is in some respects, though not all, a typical Israeli. He comes to Shetland, by the way, on an assignment – he is a secret agent, to be blunt, disguised as a bird-watcher – but the thriller facet of the book was never very prominent; don't look for it if the book ever gets translated. One thing is definitely common to the protagonist and me: we both love Shetland. Here is a short paragraph: the style, characteristic of my hero, is somewhat overdramatic, and yet the central feeling behind it surely represents my own emotions too:

The ride, crossing the island's width, was not long. We passed sheep, isolated farm houses and green fields. In places I could see square, dark, bald patches in the grassy slopes, looking a bit like fresh graves – places were peat was dug for fuel…I felt comfortable, at ease, a feeling of familiarity, closeness; as if I was riding down an old road, anticipating the view beyond the next hill … was I here before? In a period of time unrecorded by that part of my consciousness measuring time with the indifferent precision of a digital watch or a calendar? Was I – in some small gap cracked in the unchanging sequence of time – while my mind was absent, wandering off for a minute – in some fleeting blink-of-an-eye – hurled to another dimension, spending a lifetime in here, which lasted only a second in my sensed reality? Did I live here, in a parallel, hidden reality? Was I ever incarnated in the bodies of these people – I do not look all that different, after all? do I carry in my cells a cryptic message, transferred to me through meandering lanes of kinship and concealed dynasties? The air – the salt, the grass, the soil, the fish, the wool, the smoke – incorporated the smell of my own body; recycled air which I have breathed before in the past. Or the future"

Err, yes. He was a bit of a drama queen. But I can sympathize. I still miss Shetland. I hope to come visit again someday.

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