by Meir Shalev
Published by Canongate Books
331 pages, 2000
Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson
With his fourth novel, Four Meals (titled The Loves of Judith in alternate editions) Meir Shalev creates a compelling, intimate narrative with prose that is as seamless as an exhalation of breath.
Originally written in Hebrew, Four Meals is a novel about hidden intimacies and forgotten pasts, structured around four meals the narrator, Zayde, has with one of his fathers, Jacob Sheinfeld. Zayde, who has been named "grandfather" by his mother, in an attempt to thwart any threat to her son's life and has grown up in the precarious position of being, at once, fatherless and claimed by three separate men as their own. Between the two World Wars, Zayde's mother, Judith, comes to a small Palestinian village, mourning the disappearance of her daughter. In this small village, three men find themselves helplessly in love with Judith: Moshe Rabinovitch, Judith's employer, a forlorn widower who forever searches for a lost childhood braid of hair; Globerman, a rough, deceptive cattle dealer who drinks grappa with her in the afternoon; and Jacob Sheinfeld, a shy canary breeder who loses his beautiful wife over his insatiable love for Judith. And in this village, as well, Judith becomes pregnant with Zayde and raises him alone in Moshe's cowshed, refusing to acknowledge his parentage. As such, Judith remains a mystery throughout her short life, even to her only son.
After Judith's untimely death, the three men together raise and care for Zayde. These relationships serve as catalysts for the young boy. He gleans fragments of his mother from the three men to create, finally, a whole woman and begins to understand her strange, sad life.
The crisp, clean prose of Four Meals immediately swallows you into the world of Zayde, a world shrouded by Fate and destiny; the intimate details and interwoven personal histories of both the people who have touched Zayde's life and the small village he is inexplicably drawn back to creates a rich tapestry. Shalev masterfully creates memorable characters with simple, succinct descriptions, so distinctive that each can be recognized by awkward speeches in hot kitchens or a swayed walk through an orange orchard. As such, the village and its inhabitants become as tangible as the four meals Zayde and Jacob consume.
Shalev creates a lush novel, as visual as it is aural, by sprinkling the text with swift, poetic observations of human nature veiled as the small gifts of advice bestowed on Zayde by his three fathers, twinkling and gem-like:
'See, that's what I told you a minute ago, Zayde, you don't need big reasons to love a woman. And the size of the love has nothing to do with the size of the reason. Sometimes one word she says is enough. Sometimes only the line of a hip, like a poppy stem. And sometimes its how her lips look when she says "seven" or "thirteen". Look and see, with "seven" the lips are starting out like with a kiss. Then you see the teeth are touching the lips a moment to make the "v". And then the mouth is opening a little... like this... se-ven. See? And with "thirteen", the tip of the tongue is touching the top of the mouth at the end.'
Shalev sustains the magical, mythic quality of Four Meals through to the end with the inclusion of a ghostlike man who can imitate human forms, voices and actions, a trusting androgynous cow named Rachel, who seems to remind Judith of her lost daughter, an impossible boulder Moshe Rabinovitch once lifted, which now sits in his front yard and freed canaries that find their way back to Jacob's open cages.
In this manner, Shalev has created a strange, lovely world where anything is possible, where a boy may be raised as a girl until puberty; where cows, canaries and crows all act as emissaries of fate; where three men may collectively be the father of a child who, miraculously, resembles all three; and where snow may fall in deserts, in order to reunite the brothers Fate, Chance and Luck. Four Meals is a haunting novel, masterfully translated into English, losing none of its poetic beauty and wistful voice. | July 2000
Andrea MacPherson is a Vancouver-based writer who recently completed her first novel. Her work has appeared in The Antigonish Review, The Glow Within, Chameleon and Descant. She is the poetry editor for Prism International.