From time to time I like to test my ability to read a literary text in Hebrew (the daily newspaper can hardly be called ‘literary’) by reading a book in that language. After all, I have been living in Israel for almost 60 years and have had to get to grips with Hebrew for the best part of my life.
The recent passing of the acclaimed Israeli writer, Meir Shalev, brought his last book, ‘Ginat Bar’ (Wild Garden) to my attention, and so I bought a copy and started reading it. After overcoming the barrier of the different language and alphabet, I found myself enjoying the account of the garden Shalev cultivated in Galilee, following a fairly strict regime in which he eschewed the cultivated plants and flowers that are customarily found in gardens and adhered only to those that grow wild in Israel. The book is divided into relatively brief chapters, each one dedicated to a particular wild plant or creature, or even an event, and almost all of them illustrated by a charming painting or sketch by Rafaela Shir.
The author’s slightly ironic and self-deprecatory style gives the reader the illusion that he or she is being drawn into an intimate conversation with him, allowed to share in his successes and failures, his attempts to tackle the unfamiliar and difficult terrain of the area surrounding his house and invest it with the natural beauty of the flora in which Israel abounds. The reader shares in the author’s pleasure at succeeding to germinate wild celandine and cyclamen, poppies, cornflowers and many other flowering plants. There are also interesting accounts of how he battled with the moles which burrowed underneath the soil, and how he eventually came to terms with their presence.
The book makes for easy reading, with relatively short chapters devoted to individual plants and trees, as well as to such varied subjects as weeding, rain, his cat, a wasps’ nest, various birds, spiders and snakes, to name but a few. Along the way, the author refers to and cites passages from the Bible and other ancient sources, as well as reminiscing about his childhood in Nahalal and Jerusalem, giving us insights into his family background, schooldays and life in general.
In the course of his account of life in Galilee and his labours in the garden Shalev also provides the reader with some interesting diversions from the main subject. And so, while describing the life (and death) of a lemon tree he goes into a long and fascinating account of how he makes the delicious liqueur known as Limoncello. He gives a detailed explanation of which lemons to use, how to prepare them and the entire (and lengthy) process by which the end-product is produced. A similarly long and detailed account is given of how to pick and pickle olives, adding amusing comments about other people’s reactions to them and repeatedly asserting the superiority of his product over all others. He also gives a long explanation of how he collects the seeds of the various wild flowers, whether in his garden or in the countryside, how and where he stores them, generally displaying a sense of purpose and satisfaction in his actions. I must admit that not all the names of the flowers in Hebrew were familiar to me, so that I had to resort to Google Translate from time to time to ascertain which particular flower or plant Shalev was talking about.
The book purports to serve as a guide to maintaining a wild garden, or rather an account of how Shalev maintains his own version of it, but in the final event it provides an insight into the character of a quirky individual who has made a reputation for himself as a talented writer but has lost nothing of the enquiring, intelligent individualism that reflects the essence of Israel’s ethos, history and development.