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Animal Review Makes the Scene: Svejk
Ruth Bondi was born in Prague. She came to Israel in 1948, after spending most of the war years in Ghetto Terezin, or Theresienstadt by its German name. She wrote for the left wing, now extinct, newspaper "Davar" and translated Czech literature to Hebrew. On Saturday she came to Haifa, where she was a correspondent in the fifties, to talk about 'The Good Soldier Svejk' by Yaroslav Hasek. The event took place in a little cellar in Jerusalem Street in Hadar, where I attended painting class when I was 11 or so. By now they have air-condition installed in most public places, so everything is much more pleasant. Surprisingly, the place was almost packed, and several people in the audience seemed to be old mates on a regular meeting. A few were even under 40. Two illustrations from the book were screened with a sort of magic lamp on a large sheet.
Bondi apologized for lacking the ability to speak and think at the same time, and continued to read from printed pages a rather brilliant account, full of intriguing facts I was unaware of, of her relation with the good soldier, one of the lesser known and least appreciated masterpieces of the former century, at least in the English-speaking world. (Maybe I'm wrong, but it rings true.)
Most tourists come to Prague for three reasons, she said: the Golem, Kafka and Svejk; that's two-thirds Jewish, Bondi remarked, but naturally Svejk has his own Jewish points as well. Yaroslav Hasek - an alcoholic, anarchist (later communist) and famous practical joker, married a nice Jewish girl, Yarmila, and even tried to change his ways for the sake of her bourgeois parents; it lasted two years. She used to finish up some of his feuilletons, and apparently was too good at it. Hasek later remarried, but never bothered to divorce, so he was also a bigamist. Max Brod, no other, was the first to recognize Hasek's genius as installments of "Svejk" started to appear in self-published booklets, with the now classic illustrations of Lada, who received several underpants and socks for his pains. To the amazement, and later ridicule, of the local literary establishment, which considered Hasek's work nothing but cheap, low entertainment for the masses, Brod compared Hasek to Rabelais and Cervantes. Hasek wrote to him - a polite thank-you note - and told his beer mates (some were Jews as well): "I was a nobody up until now, but now that I'm in Jewish hands, I'm on my way to the top." Or something in that spirit. Hasek cannot be considered anti-Semitic, Bondi said: He ridiculed everyone equally.
When Bondi was a child, Hasek was practically forbidden literature; it was not allowed to poison children's minds with Svejk stories. It wasn't until she became resident of the Ghetto that she began to learn about the tremendous importance of Svejk. People in the Ghetto quoted Svejk all the time, and some could actually recite whole chapters by heart; the spirit of Sveik was so fitting to Ghetto life that one writer began to write the new adventures of Svejk in the Ghetto: He stands in the wrong line at city hall, has his ID stamped with the letter "J," and ends up in Terezin. The book was not completed as the writer died in the whereabouts of Auschwitz.
The original Svejk is also unfinished. As is the case with many other masterpieces, what is mostly remembered is the sentence from the opening paragraph: "They have killed our Ferdinand." Hasek planned to write about Svejk's adventures in a Russian prison camp, but died at 40 before the last battle (in the book) was waged.
When Bondi came to Israel she was happy to realize that Brod - who escaped on time and settled in Tel Aviv - had already made Svejk popular in Israel, in the form of an adaptation for the stage. Everyone could quote the opening sentences in the unique intonation of actor Meir Margalit, but no one read the book. It took her thirty years, but she translated it all to Hebrew. She then continued to translate many other Czech authors. "No one speaks Czech," she said; so, unlike translations from English, where critics allow themselves to prod and criticize the translator's work in a petty way, in her case they just say the translation is "readable." This is like saying that apricot dumplings, a famous Czech delicacy, are "edible."
I'm one of those critics, by the way, but I don't think I ever said that. I once reviewed (favorably, as always) a book by Otte Pavel, a writer who committed suicide, and wondered about his motives - Bondi sent me a handwritten letter with details about Pavel and some new information suggesting his death was in fact an accident. I never reviewed Svejk, but I'm a big fan, though I read the full version only after reading the adventures of two famous followers, Ivan Chonkin and Yossarian.
Hasek was extremely prolific - new pieces are still being published in the Czech republic - because he needed the money for beer. There are several early sketches for the character and adventures of Svejk, but mostly they are bland and unimportant. A new 'Svejk Encyclopedia' published recently reveals many new details and hilarious stories of Hasek and his book, and establishes the fact that Svejk, actually, is almost documentary. There's hardly any fiction in the book - only the names were changed. It seems one just need to look around and meticulously record stuff to create a timeless comic masterpiece.
I also learnt that Budejovice, Svejk's hometown, which he invokes endlessly with tales of peculiar people and nonsensical and out-of-context events, is none other than Budweiser. It figures.
I was in a bit of a rush when I came home after shopping and entered the bathroom – that’s a euphemism, right? There’s no bath, just a toilet – and so was all the more startled to see a pigeon sitting on the toilet seat. I can’t read the expressions on pigeons’ faces but I would guess she was as startled as I was. She looked rather pretty up close, her colorful necklace shimmering green and deep purple. It was also obvious she had used the toilet, for the right purpose. I tried to pick her up and direct her toward the window but she escaped in the opposite direction and hid in a nook between the real bathroom and the cupboard wall. The cats were immediately on her trail – they heard the fluttering of wings, I presume – and Shifra touched her curiously on the wing as she scuttered to her hideaway. From that spot it was easier to pick her up and set her free through the little window whence she came.
I shouldn’t have been surprised: It’s that time of year again. This pair of pigeons has been trying hard for some time to penetrate our toilet. It has a small niche near the ceiling where we store our Bardas Activi and gas masks. (That’s not a joke. Since the gulf war every household has a set of defense devices for non-conventional warfare.) The pigeons find it a perfect spot to build a nest, lay eggs and grow chicks. When we moved in we found an old nest, feathers and filth, and one unhatched egg. Ever since then they try to come back around this time of the year. Pigeons, it seems, don’t nest in trees. They like the cleft of the rock, as the Song of Songs says (I just guess that’s the King James version – the Hebrew is much prettier). In other words, they prefer a solid, flat surface in a sheltered place. It makes sense. It’s also a nuisance. I mean, take hummingbirds: Today we saw their new nest at my father’s house, on the olive tree. It’s nothing but a small lump of twigs and unidentified hairs, with a general elliptical shape, which seems to hang precariously among the branches. It bothers no one.
But the really amazing nest is on the other side of his house, at the front door. Looking up at the ceiling as you go out you can see, built around a simple glass lampshade, something that looks like a hut, or an igloo, built of stones, only upside down. It is actually a mud hut, but since the mud is applied lump by lump, it takes on the appearance of little pebbles. The hut is quite large – the size of a melon, I’d say – and has a round, irregular shape, with a long narrow tunnel for an entrance. There are no windows and it looks completely opaque. It’s the swallows’ nest, of course, and it has a long history. First built in 1993, it was mistaken by many alarmed people visiting my parents' house for a hornet’s nest. My father cleaned it off once the chicks flew away. The next year a pair of swallows, presumably the very same pair, rebuilt it – it’s a long, hard, job, carrying wet mud in their beaks and so on – and this time my father left it there. When they returned the following year, the swallows simply re-inhabited the empty nest – at most they did some slight renovations. Apparently the nest, which is quite a project, is not meant to be a makeshift, temporary resting place. Every year at this time they arrive at their home away from home – they are migrating birds, of course – to wait for the right moment, not wasting too much energy on construction. Through the day the dedicated couple – attractive little birds, with dark forking tails, grayish bodies and a hint of red-brown in their heads – sit on a black telephone wire in front of the house, facing the nest. There’s still a lot to be done – hatching the eggs, feeding the chicks, going back home – but at least one trouble is taken care of.
Lately I discovered that Google catalogues "Animal Review" under Arts > Online Writing > E-zines > Fiction > Bizarre, and claims that "the editor … and others write about animals, noise, Wadi Tsin, and whatever else comes into their heads." Being the above-mentioned "others" I’ll write what came into my head as I walked home after a visit to the hospital. I was scouting for a short path straight uphill to the crest of the Carmel, and near the Bahai Supreme Court there were stairs leading in the right direction. However, they ended at a deserted, almost ruined playground, and above it, I realized, there was a relatively large patch of wild mountain slope, amidst what is supposedly a completely urban territory.
The first things that caught my eye, still in the deserted playground, were several large blooming bushes of capers. As someone once noticed, what I actually do while hiking is forage for edible things, so the capers made me happy, even though in fact the edible part is the flower buds, pickled, which strikes me as slightly weird, plus I hate it. The really underestimated part of capers is their flowers, which are large and magnificent – white with a purplish crown, much like a rare tropical flower. Unfamiliar with the botanical English names of the parts of the flower I will avoid a detailed description and supply a picture.
What came into my head was an elderly couple from Cyprus visiting the holy land, coming across a bush of capers, and being ecstatically happy about the familiar reminder of home. The other thing was the memory of collectible cards with pictures of flowers added to powdered soup boxes in 1968. Capers cards were hard to get.
I walked up and almost immediately stepped on something and a strong, spicy, lovely odor filled the air: It was a small sage plant. I took some leaves with me. Sage is edible, of course, but in fact I know precisely one dish that includes sage, "saltimboko," which presumably means "jump in the mouth" – it includes meat so should not appear here, but I must say the name is very appropriate, as the sage is sort of hidden, and when you bite into it you get a sudden fresh, spanking feeling in your mouth. The other thing to do with sage is tea, but there isn’t much to be said in favor of sage tea. What came into my head as I kept on climbing was that there is food growing everywhere – that’s a lie, of course, but the man I just visited told me about a conversation he had with a woman in the hospital. People who have experienced war tend to exchange stories, and he thought hers was unique: She spent the war (WWII, the big one, as Archie Bunker used to say) in a little Russian village. "We hardly felt the war," she said. They grew potatoes near the house, as decreed by the authorities, along with other crops. Three hundred kilometers to the south raged the battle of Stalingrad, where, according to recent estimates, a million Russian soldiers died. Millions of others died of malnutrition all across the country. And yet, she said, they hardly felt it. Food was growing all around them. I bet this could also be catalogued under > Bizarre. Come to think of it, some people claim there's a war raging far fewer than 300 kilometers from here, though in WWII terms it is nothing but insignificant skirmish.
I didn’t encounter any other plant that I know to be edible as I climbed up the mountainous, thorny path, surprisingly not littered with filth. I crossed a strange ruined piece of road leading from nowhere to nowhere, and only much later saw a fig tree, but that was very close to the pizzeria and pub favored by mariners of the American sixth fleet visiting Haifa.
Tip-Ex, fading away
I always had cats, but only rather late did I get used to cats that actually need care. When I was a child, there were several cats in our backyard, and they all had names, but none of them ever saw a vet. In 'Haaretz Shelanu' I read about the weird and wondrous America, where children, when asked, "What does a cat eat?" will say "Cat food!" referring to ready-made food manufactured especially for cats (!) and bought in "supermarkets." It was ever so amusing. The correct answer to the question, by the way, was "leftovers." The cats were all shorthair Levantine gray, i.e., mongrels of no known pedigree. Gradually the American cultural colonization advanced into Israel, and new concepts of cat-care were introduced. I even remember going to a vet once or twice. But I suppose we were not ready for Tip-Ex.
Tip-Ex was a wedding present. He came all the way from Eilat by bus in a little box, and was a blazingly white Persian with thick long fur. We admired his beauty, but he did not enjoy any special privileges. We lived in Nir Haemek, an agricultural boarding school near the magnificent city of Afula. He roamed free in the lawns and gardens, like any other cat, collecting vast amounts of debris in his fur. We thought he was exceptionally stupid, even if the criteria for cats are not quite clear. He always appeared to be dazed. But than we moved to a new place. Adjusting to the new location proved to be too much for Tip-Ex. He was bewildered, frightened, hiding most of the time, and was exceptionally miserable when he was forced by the power of pheromones to court a queen in heat along with 45 other cats. Then he tried to eat something unsuitable and a thorny thing stuck in his mouth, causing infection. We took him to a vet. The vet said this must be done with full anesthetic, so while we're at it we might as well castrate him. After a short deliberation we agreed.
The end was tragic: Tip-Ex never recovered from the operation. He came back home, sad, humiliated and frightened, but escaped out the first chance he had. I think he didn't like us much. All he ever wanted was to stay in his little cage in the pet shop, and avoid all these ordeals we put him through. Sick, weak and full of stitches he went away to find refuge in the great pet shop in the sky.
Botha, the dog-cat
Botha was a beautiful tar-black kitten that arrived out of the blue and crashed in our apartment in Nir Haemek. We named him after P.W. Botha, the South-African premier who was in the news at the time. He grew up to become a beautiful black cat, full of energy and vigor. But he did have a few bizarre qualities. For one, he would accompany us over long distances. He would lick our faces; when left outside the apartment, he would noisily scratch the door and yelp trying to get in. However, his most dog-like feature was his habit of hiding some of his favorite things in well-chosen clandestine places. One weekend we asked a neighbor to feed Botha while we were away. Upon returning he told us he could not find the sack of dry cat food that was supposed to be in the kitchen. We looked around, and couldn't find it either. It was a very large sack, almost full – it was a mystery. Who would steal it? A week later we discovered it under the bed, one of Botha's favorite hiding places. The sack was twice his size and probably twice his bodyweight too, but he somehow dragged it, like a cheetah dragging an antelope, across the apartment, and hid it so that no one would steal it. It was very touching.
Botha disappeared while he was still quite young. It is not unusual for young, free-roaming male cats in rural areas to meet their fate in ways I don't wish to think about. Botha's disappearance, however, coincided with another, personal disappearance. Had this been literature, Botha's departure would have become a metaphor; as it is, I mostly remember his doggish behavior and his soft, shiny black fur.
The high window (I)
The strange, suffocated meow that infiltrated through the routine peaceful evening soundtrack was hardly recognized. I got up from my chair. When it returned, I looked out the window because I thought it was coming from outside, and I saw the cat hanging from the laundry lines. Her paws were grappling the nylon thread in a desperate spasm, but the cat's furry, soft, marvelously designed paws, capable of slashing deep wounds in opponents' skin, or gently hold an object with surprising accuracy, are not meant for such tasks. It seemed that in seconds the cat would give in and drop down five stories. Landing on four feet would not save her from immediate death.
In spite of my astonishment, the dim light and the difficult angle, I stretched my hand as fast as I could, felt about and gripped Shifra, Jr.'s nape. I hauled her back inside. She escaped to hide under the sofa. I was excited and proud of myself.
Many cat lovers tend to view them as perfect animals – a flawless masterpiece of nature. Shifra, Jr. has always been a living proof of the inherent fault of this conviction. At the same time she is an interesting case in the time-old "nature vs. nurture" argument: She was born in a warm, safe home to a loving mother she is named after. Shifra is a truly amazing cat, absurdly good-natured – she bears the endless harassments of children as if she were a giant, forgiving Saint Bernard – pretty and kind, and her only fault is her tendency to express her love through active, wet suckling of sweaters and other clothing items of her benefactors. Shifra, Jr., on the other hand, is neurotic, cowardly, hostile, biting the hand that feeds her, and also an unrivaled schlemiel. The poor soul was walking on the window ledge when she lost her balance – such a basic trait of cats – and would have plunged into certain death had I not come to the rescue at the crucial moment.
Or so I thought. A few days later I wasn't around to save her. We came back home and she was gone. The window was her only way out. But her crushed body wasn't to be found down at the backyard. Maybe some neighbor wished to spare our feelings and took her away? Nothing of the sort. Once she gathered enough courage she climbed back by the stairs, with nothing but a slight limp to testify to her adventure. She repeated this escapade at least twice.
The high window (II)
Shifra, Jr.’s leap to freedom was followed by a similar event at our friends H. & Y.’s house. However, they live on the 7th floor, and looking straight down from their porch there is nothing but other porches all the way down to the hard asphalt of the parking lot. Shifra, Jr. was probably saved because her free fall was hampered by laundry lines and some bushes in the garden. But Python, a.k.a. Biton, a large Siamese tomcat, did not have this luxury. It is commonly assumed that he was trying to hunt some pigeons at the time (a friend warned them: "I had a cat who did that, fell off the 6th floor and died," but they didn’t take it seriousely) so some people may consider his fate a divine punishment for his stupid attempt to act according to his instincts in spite of being well fed, pampered, overweight and lazy. Python fell seven floors down, with no hand of God to save him and no vegetation or laundry to soften his fall.
Python was badly hurt, yet he survived. Kids found him a few days later lying under a bush, barely alive. He was taken to a vet, who said that in his opinion he had also been subject to abuse. He was bandaged and treated with cortisone and antibiotics, but was unable to move. He needed intensive care, especially with regards to his intimate needs. He could not climb into his litter box. Our friends had a baby at the time, one that demanded their full attention, so a good friend volunteered to nurse Python. H. & Y. just paid alimony. He recovered and lived on but was apparently brain-damaged.
This may lead one to conclude that the 6th floor is the height limit for falling cats’ probable survival. However, when I related these two incredible stories to an acquaintance, she replied with a story of her own. She had moved from a country house to a big apartment house in the city, taking with her a cat that was not used to living indoors. The cat was miserable and constantly looked out the window, longing for the open spaces. Eventually he – or was it a she – disappeared. Jumped, that is – only they lived on the 10th floor, or higher. They can see the top of a tree from their window, but it's quite distant – still, it’s their only logical explanation for the fact they saw their cat, alive and well, several weeks later, not far from the house. She had no regrets and refused to go back home.
Cat greeting homecoming businessman
He has a reputation of a being a tough manager and a workaholic, but he is mostly well known for being a chain-smoker in a world that strives to make chain-smokers an extinct species. He is a small, very thin man who appears to always be on the brink of a heart attack. He seems to be on edge – nervous, active, his hands, ever holding a cigarette, appear to have a slight constant tremor. His features are pointy and his face freckled. He is not bad tempered unless business requires it – then he can be ruthless. I went to his office with a friend who used to be his subordinate. He offered coffee and small talk ensued, mainly about Hong Kong, where they both spent two years together at the same office. Then he started talking about his recent return to the country. He described how the taxi arrived from the airport to his house – he lives in a wealthy suburb with nice big houses surrounded by gardens – and while he was unloading his luggage at the gate, he felt something at his feet: the cat was rubbing at his trousers. It was amazing, unbelievable, he said: they left the house 5 years earlier, and neighbors, living several blocks away, adopted the cat. At first she did return to her old house every once in a while, but gradually gave up, realizing that her old masters were gone for good. His family returned earlier, and they didn’t see her. Now, as he was arriving straight from the airport, she was waiting for him. As he told the story, his matter-of-fact, harsh voice turned softer; his expression turned tender and dreamy. He was elated, almost radiant, and suddenly appeared to me like a medieval portrait of Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the animal kingdom. I could see the halo round his head. But the smoke may have blurred my vision.
The great Whodunit
I enjoy having cats around; I used to have this ideal picture of complete peacefulness, drawn from popular English literature, I suppose, of sitting at the fireside, reading a book with a purring cat in my lap. Fireside is not really an option in a Mediterranean climate, so the air-condition replaces it; but the cat remains. The litter box was never a part of this picture.
When we moved to our current apartment, for the first time not on ground level and without a garden, we had no cat. Soon I began to long for one – pictures of peaceful evenings, the home fire burning, purring etc. ran through my head – and by consensus we decided to adopt Shifra. The litter box was introduced as a sort of temporary measure, until Shifra learned to find her way up and down five floors to relieve herself. As is often the case in a Mediterranean climate, temporary measures become permanent. Shifra found the litter box arrangement quite satisfactory and had no motivation to change her ways. It was not until much, much later – when a new baby was about to appear on the scene – that I decided to put an end to the agony of cleaning the box and, more or less by brute force, toilet-trained Shifra and Jr.
It all worked fine – the cats had no difficulty expressing their wish to either go out or come back in. Jr. usually scratches the mirror in our bedroom at 5 a.m., making annoying squeaky noises that mean: I need to pee. But than new neighbors moved in to the apartment next door, with 2 dogs and a cat. And something happened. Someone began to use the stairs – more precisely, the doormats of certain apartments – as a toilet. Great commotion was caused. Angry notes appeared on the billboard at the entrance. Suspicious looks were exchanged between formerly friendly neighbors. I won’t go into details, but the main suspect was Shifra, Jr. I was almost certain it was her, and was furious. My theory was that she was so terrified by the newly arrived cat that she feared going down all the way.
It was not easy to verify it – following a cat at 5 a.m. is not something anyone is highly motivated to do. She was never caught in the act but circumstantial evidence against her accumulated. So, to my dismay, we had to go back, temporarily, to the litter box. Then, a few days later, the crime was committed again. A new theory evolved: it was a small dog, not a cat at all. Jr. was acquitted, the box gone, and the peace returned. Who knows for how long.