Heatwave and Crazy Birds begins with a return. It’s a reluctant turn homeward after a death, an inheritance, a house left long ago. From there, it moves backward, from protagonist Loya standing in the doorway of her house in Israel, from the tumultuous present to the first days of her nation, then back into her family’s history in Central Europe after, during and before World War II, and dips all the way back to ancient civilizations and their languages and their deities. Loya shows up in the town of her childhood as the last surviving member of her family, and after a painful past she’s avoided examining, she must finally decide what that might mean.
Read the last Bookslut exclusive on Rebecca Wolff's The Beginners.
Gabriela Avigur-Rotem has chosen a very large canvas for Heatwave, her first novel to be translated into English. Her ambition is matched only by her skill, and the novel remains riveting as it flies through the centuries. Avigur-Rotem and I spoke of living in the aftermath of the 20th century, her introduction to an English-speaking audience and the Crazy Birds of the title.
I was wondering how much Loya's interest in history and language is shared by you. The way it's layered into the book, it seems more the result of passion than just research you did for the sake of the novel. Also, Loya strikes me as someone whose interest in ancient and regional history allows her to avoid her family's history and Israel's present. Of all the characters, she is the least interested in the violence around her, and in forming an opinion about it. How does that relate to the historical scope of the novel itself?
I do admit that history as a reservoir of original and unbelievable stories, which one is bound to believe, has always fascinated me because events that really happened impress me and move me more than works of fantasy.
My novel depicts the repression and denial of the painful past that was so typical to Israeli society during the 1950s, and Loya is no exception. She is like a child who has to grow up quickly “to fill” the house she inherited—like Alice in Wonderland—by coming to terms with her family's past and the Jewish fate during the Shoa [Holocaust]. Only then can the old house fall apart like a cracked eggshell and allow Loya to face her past and her future as an adult person.
Loya has a tendency to "change channels" every time things become rough. She had no intention to land in her homeland—but the past and the present intertwine on her like the climbing plant on the cypress near the gate, and everything she had tried to avoid faces her and compels her to react. I intended to portray Israeli life that is characterized by the inability to cut oneself off from all that is going on—the news, the violence and the anxiety—as Loya had tried to do but fails.
As for the language, I feel blessed that my biography led me to write in the very same language of the Bible. Unlike Loya, I do not have the gift to master many languages, and I certainly envy her for that.
Loya's one act of protest against what her father and his friend Davidi went through was her boycott of Germany and the German language [and Czech]. In the novel you mention that the WWII atrocities were not much mentioned in this generation. When did that begin to change? And what do you make of Loya's response to the languages she was rejecting, which not only belonged to those responsible for WWII, but also to her family?
During the ’50s most of the Israelis refused to buy German goods or to speak German. The horrors of the Holocaust had just happened and wounds were too fresh, and though the details were not openly discussed—we were all familiar with the unbelievable number of “6 million victims.” Those who ignored the painful boycott were harshly judged.
The survivors suffered from this national trauma, too, being referred to as "human dust" [the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion’s figure of speech] and treated with suspicion: "How come that you, of all people, happened to survive? What contemptible acts had you performed in order to stay alive? Why did you not immigrate to Palestine earlier, while it was still possible? Now you come, after having nothing and no family left and want to benefit from the achievements of the Zionist pioneers that you had mocked and despised?"
This attitude began to change, thanks to the impact of Eichmann's trial in 1961. It was the first opportunity to hear openly, daily, on the radio, how horrible and unsolvable the dilemmas that the survivors had to cope with had been.
As for Loya, she rejects the German language as most of her generation do, and her father's exceptional attitude annoys her tremendously. Her attitude towards the Czechs derives from a different source—she keeps herself apart from everything that may remind her of her mother, whose absence caused overwhelming grief.
I was curious about Loya's nickname from Davidi, the Goddess Anat. When did you first hear the stories about Anat, and what, to you, does she represent in the story?
Anat is a Phoenician Goddess, full of sound and fury. One of the many ways to cope with the Jewish helplessness and the atrocities of the Shoa was to declare that those who live in Israel are totally different from those who "went to the slaughter like sheep." The Israelites are descendants of the Canaanites and are connected to the regional mythology of the Phoenician heroes, Gods and Goddesses like Anat [Anat is still a very popular name for a girl in modern Israel] and even the brave Hannibal, who had threatened Rome, was one of our glorious ancestors. In my novel this is the way Davidi deals with his past. As a secular educated man who had fought the Nazis as a partisan I felt that such an attitude suits him.
This is your first novel to be translated into English…Are you pleased that this will be the book that introduces you to an English audience?
Indeed this is my first novel to be translated into English, and I do hope that this insight into Israeli reality and Israeli mentality will enable a better understanding of what it is like to be here and to live here.
Tell me a little more about the birds that populate the title and the novel itself. I was curious about the identity of Dubcek. (As I write this, my courtyard has starlings, magpies, a crow and a very enthusiastic blackbird.)
At the first stages of my writing I looked out of my window to find some friends Loya could relate to, and some birds caught my attention. Since I never before had been interested in birds, I did not know their names, and I nicknamed them according to their looks. Dubcek is a bird named halcyon smyrnensis, or white-breasted Kingfisher—and it really resembles the Czech prime minister Dubcek in his profile.
The name of the book is taken from the sentence “love was heatwave and crazy birds.”
Jessa Crispin is the editor-in-chief of Bookslut.