THESE ARE THE MOST COMMONLY ASKED QUESTIONS. Why do you write? Why do you write the way you do? Are you trying to influence your readers, and, if so, how? What role do your books play? Do you constantly cross out and correct or do you write straight out of your head? What is it like to be a famous writer and what effect does it have on your family? Why do you mostly describe the negative side of things? What do you think of other writers: which ones have influenced you and which ones can’t you stand? And by the way, how would you define yourself? How would you respond to those who attack you, and what do the attacks do to you? Do you write with a pen or on a computer? And how much, roughly, do you earn from each book? Do you draw the material for your stories from your imagination or directly from life? What does your ex-wife think of the female characters in your books? And, in fact, why did you leave your first wife, and your second wife? Do you have fixed times for writing or do you just write when the muse visits you? Are you politically committed as a writer, and, if so, what is your political affiliation? Are your books autobiographical or completely fictional? And above all, how is it that, as a creative artist, you lead such a stolid, unexciting private life? Or are there all sorts of things that we don’t know about you? And how can a writer, an artist, spend his life working as an accountant? Or is it simply a job for you? And tell us, doesn’t being an accountant totally kill your muse? Or do you have another life, one that’s not for publication? Won’t you at least give us a few hints this evening? And would you please tell us, briefly and in your own words, what exactly you were trying to say in your last book?
There are clever answers and there are evasive answers: there are no simple, straightforward answers.
And so the Author will sit down in a little café three or four streets away from the Shunia Shor Community Center building where the literary evening is to take place. The interior of the café feels low, gloomy, and suffocating, which is why it suits him rather well right now. He will sit here and try to concentrate on these questions. (He always arrives half an hour or forty minutes early for any meeting, and so he always has to find something to do to pass the time.) A tired waitress in a short skirt, and with high breasts, dabs a cloth over his table: but the Formica remains sticky even after she has wiped it. Maybe the cloth was not clean?
While she does it the Author eyes her legs: they are shapely, attractive legs, although the ankles are a little on the thick side. Then he steals a look at her face: it is a pleasant, sunny face, with eyebrows that meet in the middle and the hair tied back with a red rubber band. The Author detects a smell of sweat and soap, the smell of a weary woman. He can make out the outline of her underpants through her skirt. His eyes fix on this barely discernible shape: he finds a slight asymmetry in favor of the left buttock exciting. She notices his look groping at her legs, her hips, her waist, and her face expresses disgust and entreaty: just leave me alone, for heaven’s sake.
And so the Author politely looks away, orders an omelet and salad with a roll and a glass of coffee, extracts a cigarette from its packet, and holds it unlit in between the second and third fingers of his left hand which is supporting his cheek: an intensely cultured look that fails to impress the waitress because she has already turned on the heels of her flat shoes and vanished behind the partition.
While he waits for his omelet, the Author imagines the waitress’s first love (he decides to name the waitress Ricky): when Ricky was only sixteen she fell in love with the reserve goalkeeper of Bnei-Yehuda football team, Charlie, who turned up one rainy day in his Lancia in front of the beauty parlor where she worked and swept her away for a three-day break in a hotel in Eilat (of which an uncle of his was part-owner). While they were there, he even bought her a sensational evening dress with silver sequins and everything, that made her look like a Greek singer, but after two weeks or so he dropped her and went off again to the same hotel, this time with the runner-up in the Queen of the Waves contest. Eight years and four men later, Ricky has never stopped dreaming that one day he will come back: he had episodes where he would seem to be terribly angry with her, really scary, dangerous, as if he was about to go crazy, and she was quite alarmed at times, but suddenly, in an instant, his mood would lighten and he would forgive her, cuddling her with childlike happiness, calling her Gogog, kissing her neck, tickling her with his warm breath, gently parting her lips with his nose, like this, which gave her a warm sensation that crept over her body, like honey, then suddenly he would toss her up in the air, hard, like a pillow, until she screamed for her mother, but he always caught her at the very last moment and hugged her, so she wouldn’t fall. He liked to tickle her with the tip of his tongue, slowly for a long time behind both ears and inside her ears and on the nape of her neck where the finest hairs grew, until that feeling crept over her like honey again. Charlie never raised a finger against her or called her names. He was the first man who taught her to slow-dance, and to wear a micro bikini, and to lie naked face down in the sun and think dirty thoughts, and he was the first man to teach her what drop earrings with green stones did for her face and neck.
But then he was forced to return the Lancia and wear a plaster cast on his fractured arm and he went off to Eilat again but this time with a different girl, Lucy, who almost won the Queen of the Waves competition, and, before he left, he said to Ricky, Look here, Gogog, I’m really really sorry but try to understand. Lucy was before you, Lucy and I didn’t really break up, we just had a bit of a spat and somehow it turned out that we didn’t see each other for a while, but now we’re back together again and that’s that, Lucy said to tell you that she’s really not mad at you, no hard feelings, you’ll see, Gogog, after a while you’ll gradually get over our thing together and I’m sure you’ll find someone who suits you more, because the fact is, you deserve someone better, you deserve the best there is. And the most important thing, Gogog, is that you and I only have good feelings about each other, no?
Eventually Ricky gave the sequined dress away to a cousin and relegated the bikini to the back of a drawer, behind her sewing kit, where it was forgotten: men can’t help themselves, that’s just the way they are made, but women in her view are actually not much better, and that’s why love is something that one way or another always turns out badly.
Charlie hasn’t played for Bnei-Yehuda for a long while. Now he has a wife and three children and owns a factory in Holon making solar water heaters?—?they say he even exports them wholesale to the Occupied Territories and to Cyprus. And what about that Lucy? With her skinny legs? What happened to her in the end? Did Charlie throw her away too when he’d finished using her? If only I had her address, or her phone number, and if I had the guts, I’d go and look her up. We could have a coffee together. And talk. We might even become friends, the two of us. It’s strange how I don’t give a damn about him anymore but I do care a bit about her. I never think about him at all, even with contempt, while I do sometimes think about her: because maybe she’s become a bit like me now? Did he call her Gogog in bed, too? Did he laugh and move the tip of his nose back and forth like that between her lips? Did he show her, slowly, gently, with her hand, what her body was like? If only I could find her, we might talk about that, we might even become friends.
Friendship is something that doesn’t enter into relations between a man and a woman, especially if there’s electricity there. And if there’s no electricity then there can’t be anything between them anyway. But between two women, especially two women who’ve both been on the receiving end of suffering and disappointment from men, and above all two women who’ve both suffered on account of the same man?—?maybe I should try to find that Lucy sometime?
At a nearby table two men are sitting, both in their fifties. They seem unhurried. The dominant one is thickset and totally bald, and looks like a gangster’s henchman in a film. The smaller of the two looks used, even threadbare, his manner is noisy, his expression inclined to show admiration or sympathy, without discrimination. The Author, lighting a cigarette, decides that this one must be an agent of sorts, or perhaps a hairdryer salesman. He names the boss Mr. Leon, and the toady could be Shlomo Hougi. They seem to be having a general discussion on the subject of success.
The gangster’s henchman is saying, “Besides which, by the time you’ve made anything of your life it’s over.”
“I agree one hundred percent,” says the sidekick, “God forbid I should contradict you, but surely you must agree that living just to eat and drink can hardly be considered a life worthy of a human being. A man needs to have a degree of spirituality, as we call it in Judaism, an ‘extra soul.’”
“There you go, again,” says the boss, coldly and with a hint of disgust, “always taking off on one of your woolly ramblings. You’re always pulling things out of thin air. You’d explain yourself much better if you just gave an example or two from real life.”
“OK, fine, why not, take for instance that guy Hazzam who used to work for Isratex, Ovadya Hazzam, you remember him, don’t you, the one who won half a million on the lottery a couple of years ago, and then he got divorced, had a wild time, moved house, started investing, offered unsecured loans to all and sundry, joined the party and maneuvered to become head of department, and lived like a king. Like a lord, even. In the end he got liver cancer and was taken to Ichilov Hospital in critical condition.”
Mr. Leon screws up his face and says in a bored tone: “Of course. Ovadya Hazzam. I was at his son’s wedding. As it happens I am personally acquainted with the case of Ovadya Hazzam. He spent money left and right, both on good causes and just having a good time, he cruised around town all day in a blue Buick with Russian blondes, and he was always looking for investors, entrepreneurs, guarantors, sources of funding, partners. Poor guy. But you know what? For what we were talking about, you’d best forget him: he’s not a good example for you. Cancer, my friend, doesn’t come from bad habits. Scientists have discovered now that it’s caused either by dirt or by nerves.”
The Author leaves nearly half his omelet on his plate. He takes a couple of sips of his coffee and finds it tastes of burnt onion and margarine. He glances at his watch. Then he pays, smiles at Ricky as he thanks her for the change, which he hides for her under the saucer. This time he is careful not to stare at her as she walks away, though he does bestow an appreciative parting glance at her back and her hips. He can see through her skirt that the left side of her underpants is slightly higher than the right side. It is hard for him to tear his eyes away. Eventually he gets up to leave, then changes his mind and goes down the two steps to the windowless toilet: the dead light bulb, the peeling plaster and the smell of stale urine in the dark remind him that he isn’t prepared for the meeting and has no idea how he will answer the audience’s questions.
As he comes up from the toilet he sees that Mr. Leon and Shlomo Hougi have moved their chairs closer together and are now sitting shoulder to shoulder, bent over a notepad. The heavyset man runs his thick thumb slowly along the rows of numbers, while he talks in an emphatic whisper, shaking his head repeatedly, as though ruling something out once and for all, no question of it, while his acquiescent partner nods over and over again.
The Author steps out into the street and lights another cigarette. It’s twenty past nine. The evening is hot and sticky, the congealed air lies heavy on streets and yards, saturated with soot and burnt gasoline. How terrible it must be, he thinks, on such a suffocating evening, to be lying in a critical condition in Ichilov Hospital, pierced with needles and connected up to tubes, between sweaty sheets, to the asthmatic sound of a bank of breathing machines. He pictures Ovadya Hazzam, before he got ill, an active man, always on the move, running all over the place, heavily built but agile, almost with a dancer’s movements, driving around town in his blue Buick, always surrounded by helpers, friends, advice-givers, young girls, investors, wheeler-dealers and men on the make, throngs of people with ideas and initiatives, with favors to ask, and all kinds of fixers and meddlers. All day long he slapped people on the back, hugged men and women alike to his broad chest, punched them playfully in the ribs, gave his word of honor, expressed amazement, burst into roars of laughter, remonstrated, rebuked and cracked jokes, said I am completely stunned, shouted Forget it, what the hell, quoted biblical verses, and sometimes succumbed to a mounting wave of sentiment, and then he would start, with no prior warning, smothering men and women indiscriminately with kisses and eager caresses, almost going down on bended knees, suddenly bursting into tears, grinning shyly and kissing, caressing, hugging and weeping all over again, bowing deeply and promising never to forget, and then off he hurried, breathless, smiling, waving goodbye to you with an open hand that always had the keys to the Buick suspended from one finger.
Beneath the window of the terminal ward where Ovadya Hazzam is lying, the evening is punctuated by ambulance sirens, screeching brakes, a brutish babble of full-volume advertising slogans from the blaring radio in the taxi station at the entrance to the hospital. With every breath his lungs are invaded by a foul cocktail of smells: urine, sedatives, leftover food, sweat, sprays, chlorine, medicines, soiled dressings, excrement, beetroot salad, and disinfectant. In vain have all the windows been opened wide in the old cultural center now renamed for “Shunia Shor and the Seven Victims of the Quarry Attack”: the air conditioning is out of order and the air is close and suffocating. The audience is drenched with sweat. Some bump into friends and stand chatting in the aisles. Others sit on hard seats, the younger ones on benches at the back because the older regulars have filled the front rows, their clothes sticking to their bodies, exuding their own smell and that of their neighbors into the murky air.
Meanwhile they exchange opinions, about the latest news, the terrible event in Acre, the leaks from the cabinet meeting, the revelations of corruption, the general situation, the air conditioning not working, and the heat. Three weary fans revolve ineffectually and almost unnoticed overhead: it is very hot here. Tiny insects squeeze between your collar and the back of your neck, like tropical Africa. Smells of sweat and deodorant hang in the air.
Outside, three or four streets away, the siren of an ambulance or fire engine rises and falls, an ominous wail that gradually fades, not so much because of the distance as from failing strength. The night is pierced by the staccato alarm of a parked car struck by sudden panic in the darkness. Will the Author say something new this evening? Will he manage to explain to us how we got into this state of affairs, or what we have to do to change it? Can he see something that we haven’t seen yet?
Some have brought along the book that is the subject of this evening’s event, and are using it?—?or a newspaper?—?to fan themselves. There’s a delay and still no sign of the Author. The program includes words of welcome, a lecture by a literary critic, a reading of short extracts from the new work, the writer’s talk, questions and answers, summing up, and closing remarks. Admission is free, and people are curious.
And here he is, at last, the writer.
The venue’s cultural administrator has been waiting for him outside, at the foot of the stairs, for the past twenty minutes. He is a positive, affable man of about seventy-two, ruddy and round, with a face that reminds you of an apple that has been left too long in the fruit bowl until it turns wrinkly. Unhealthy-looking blue veins crisscross his cheeks. His spirit, though, is as lively as ever, like a fireman’s hose aiming jets of enthusiasm and social commitment in every direction. But an acrid wave of body odor can be sensed from a handshake away. He wastes no time in starting to forge with the Author, who is thirty years his junior, bonds of affection erupting to mingle with big-hearted admiration, like the intimacy between two veteran guerrilla fighters: You and I, after all, struggle tirelessly, each in our own battle zone, for the promotion of values, of culture and of ideas, and to strengthen the ramparts of civilization. That is why we can permit ourselves, in private here, behind the scenes, a couple of minutes of light-hearted banter before we put on appropriately serious faces when we walk into the hall and take our places on the dais.