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BOOK REVIEW : The Fables of Israel: Gusto in Metaphors : THE BLUE MOUNTAIN <i> by Meir Shalev</i> , <i> translated by Hillel Halkin</i> ; HarperCollins, $22.95, 394 pages

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A lament for the vanished ideals of the past and an ironic overview of a tumultuous, imperfect present, “The Blue Mountain” is a reinvention of modern Israeli history as perceived by a contemporary fabulist. The self-appointed chronicler is Baruch Shenhar, grandson of one of his village founders; at 10 he is already “a big, bearlike sack of stories that had no answers in it.” Orphaned at 2 when a terrorist bomb kills his parents, Baruch grows up a solitary, inquisitive child living by choice on the fringe of village life, eavesdropping and spying on the townspeople, listening raptly to his grandfather’s tales of the early years of the settlement and letting his imagination run wild.

With Tsirkin and Liberson, two other young men fleeing Czarist Russia, Grandfather Ya’akov Mirkin had gone to the Jezreel Valley before World War I and immediately set himself the task of making the desert bloom.

En route to Palestine, the three idealistic pioneers met the vivacious Feyge Levin, traveling with her brother on a similar journey to the Promised Land. Her brother opts for city life, but Feyge chooses to stay with the intrepid men who guided her through the wilderness. Although all three of them fall in love with winsome Feyge and she is reluctant to select a husband, Mirkin succeeds in marrying her.

After her death at a tragically early age, she becomes an almost mythic figure in village lore.

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In time, the commune grows to include an extraordinary assortment of dreamers and realists, geniuses and fools, saints and viragoes whose daily escapades give this novel robust life. If the mix seems to include more eccentrics than pragmatists, more giants than might be expected in so tiny a town, it may be that the impossible can only be accomplished by people impervious to logic.

Certainly the conditions the settlers encountered would have sent more pragmatic men and women scurrying back to the known, predictable hazards of Europe. Assaulted by marauding tribesmen, plagued by malarial mosquitoes, felled by tropical illnesses and always confronted by land that had never produced a crop edible by man or beast, only the passionate, the obsessed and the idealistic could survive. By the time Baruch is mature enough to begin telling their stories, each individual life had become remarkable.

When his grandfather dies, Baruch turns the flourishing farm and orchard into a cemetery for the pioneers, a group he defines as anyone who came to work the land under the British Mandate. He welcomes even those who quickly became disillusioned and moved on to the towns or to America.

His decision is unpopular, violating the cherished principles of the founders, although his heroic chronicles seem designed to console his detractors. He is burying dreams and illusions in his graveyard, and if the symbolism of his occupation seems heavy-handed, the inventive prose and lusty, antic humor succeeds in offsetting the obviousness. Baruch’s work, of course, offers him a unique opportunity to recall the lives of his clients, a task he tackles with gusto, blending fact and fancy, fusing the possible, the unimaginable and the humdrum into a fantastic saga.

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By the time the reader reaches the end of “The Blue Mountain,” he is ready to believe that a tragically disfigured war veteran could develop the physical strength to carry an enormous bull on his back from one end of the country to another, that a man could wait a lifetime for a lover abandoned half a century ago in another country to reappear at his door, that a young man driven from the town for outrageous, flagrant lechery could settle down to become the most docile of husbands. Metaphor must begin somewhere--why not here?

Next: See reviews “Airman Mortensen” by Michael Blake (Seven Wolves Press).


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