The two novels "Summer in the Street of the Prophets" and "A Voyage to Ur of the Chaldees" are the first two volumes in the seven-part book; "The Palace of Shattered Vessels." David Shahar, born in Jerusalem, received major literary prizes in Israel and in France for this book. Jerusalem in the 1930s under the British Mandate is central to it.
The main character in the novels is Gabriel Jonathan Luria who returns home to Jerusalem after leaving his medical studies in France. The novels are narrated by a 10-year-old boy, and Gabriel Luria's life and adventures are connected to the child's thoughts. The narrator's voice combines the naive point of view of the child with the point of view of an adult trying to reconstruct his childhood in Jerusalem of the 1930s.
Shahar describes growing up in the child's voice, with the partiality and absorption of reality peculiar to a child. This point of view explains the structure of repetition and the gaps in the information given. The second point of view, the adult voice presents the material of reality, including the relations between Jews and Arabs, the love stories, and the family relations and politics.
Gabriel Luria is a mysterious and an exciting character in the eyes of the child. The child tries to uncover Luria's secret with information provided by Luria's father, mother, and friends. However, from the adult point of view and the reader's perspective, Luria is not so important or interesting. Instead of studying medicine, he decides to experience life, to travel in France, and to meet people. He is a descendant of Yitzhak Ben Shlomo Luria, one of the most important Kabbalistic (Jewish mystical) thinkers of the 16th Century. The title, "The Palace of the Shattered Vessels," alludes to motifs in Kabbalah.
From the child's point of view reality is mixed with dreams and fantasy with concrete happenings. The narrator tries to understand Gabriel Luria but catches only a part of him and reality. The adult voice, reconstructing his childhood, and the reader's imagination, fill in the void. For example, there is the naive description of the King of Abyssinia's visit to Jerusalem in the beginning of the novel "Summer in the Street of the Prophets." So, too, later in the novels the child mixes between reality and daydreaming when he describes main characters in his neighborhood.
A major influence on this seven-volume work is Marcel Proust's "A Remembrance of Things Past." Memory is a strong influence on the thoughts of the narrator and in the development of these novels. The source of some of the digressions in the plot is the narrator's memory and remembrances. The past is brought back in the narrator's description and causes digressions in the plot. The narrator himself is aware of memory and its influence in the novels. In one of his digressions on the subject he says: " . . . in all of my encounters, not only with people but even with houses and trees and alleys and streets and sights and smells, I have always sensed something of the essence of the advent of memory. For all of them go on existing and living their lives year after year, even though they are situated outside the circles of our daily routines. Suddenly, their routines brush up against ours, and here they are rising up before us like Lazarus from the dead . . . ."
Shahar excells in his description of Mandatory Jerusalem in the 1930s. He describes Jews--Sephardic and Ashkenazic, orthodox and secular; he illustrates the Jewish aristocracy--and the Jewish lower class; he deftly portrays the British authorities in Eretz Yisrael (Mandatory Palestine) and their subjects; he captures the people from the older generation who remember and some of whom long for the Ottoman Empire authorities; he provides rich detail of neighborhoods, streets and houses and the reader can imagine himself walking with the child narrator in the streets of Jerusalem during those years.
Shahar's portrait of Jerusalem avoids the holy. It is a Jerusalem of people who live hard lives and who work hard for their livelihoods. Jerusalem the holy remains in the distant background. The narrator prefers to describe people, their lives, and difficulties. The main focus is on families and neighborhood ties.
An important detail missing in the child's narrative is an awareness of the Jewish-Arab conflict. A tension exists for the adult characters after the riots of 1929, but they suppress it and the child is therefore unaware. That tension is renewed by bloody riots from April to October of 1936, the year that the novels take place. The narrator hints about these riots at the end of "A Voyage to Ur of The Chaldees," and they will be described in the third novel, "The Day of the Countess," which has not yet been translated into English. The sunny childhood of the narrator comes to an abrupt end at the conclusion of the second novel with the bloody riots of 1936. These events will mature him. He will face reality and its bitter difficulties in the following novel.
Dalya Bilu's translation brings the best features of the novels from Hebrew into English. Let us hope that Bilu, who is one of the outstanding translators of modern Hebrew prose into English, will continue and finish the translations of the other four volumes of "The Palace of the Shattered Vessels."