Family obligation and religious and political allegiance: such are the dominant themes in this first English-language collection of the work of the late (1934–81) Israeli author.
Best known for his autobiographical novels Past Continuous (1984) and Past Perfect (1987), Shabtai was an exquisite stylist equally adept at brief vignettes resonant with implied emotion and ampler narratives that wrest drama from carefully developed characterizations. The best of these 14 gemlike miniatures (several of which feature the same unidentified omniscient narrator) include a boy’s memory of growing up terrorized by his insanely pious grandfather (“Adoshem”); the meeting of an elderly widow and widower, each of whom expects the other to be the one to offer “A Marriage Proposal”; a mother’s vigil at the bedside of her son, the possessor of an angelic tenor voice, who’s now dying of AIDS (“Twilight”); and a grandson’s account (“Departure”) of the passing of his beloved grandmother, “Little by little . . . . Like a strip of brown land, receding from the eyes of the travelers on a ship . . . . ” Of the longer stories, “Cordoba” doesn’t do enough with the relationship between an Israeli architect touring Spain and the virginal American girl to whom he’s attracted; but “Uncle Shmuel” offers an appealing portrayal of an ebullient, distractingly ambitious jack-of-all trades. And Shabtai strikes deeper in the compact tale (“The Voyage to Mauritius”) of a socialist atheist whose Job-like travail and arduous passage (during WWII) to the new country of Israel purifies and ennobles him. Shabtai’s versatility is shown by the picaresque tale of a resourceful hustler noted for his ingenious moneymaking schemes (“A Private and Very Awesome Leopard”) and the unusual title story, which details a passionate Communist’s obsession with the unstable woman “revolutionary” who loves, leaves, and unmans him.
Richly varied and moving fiction: the work of a little-known writer who deserves to be remembered.