The Artist in the Parking Lot

By Yehudah Mirsky
Monday, July 30, 2012

"Once upon a time in a kingdom, in a Middle Eastern democratic country, there was a watchman.  The watchman sat for days on end in a booth, in the southern end of a pretty Mediterranean city, in a concrete parking lot . . . . He would often pose a question to an elegant woman of a certain age—who was his Fate: Why did you have to stick me in a booth?  The woman didn't answer, but smiled mysteriously."

Thus opens a different window onto Israeli life, Leonid Pekarovsky's Metateh ve-Sipurim Aherim ("Broom and Other Stories," translated from Russian to Hebrew by Tanya Chazanovsky and Tomer Sarig), by turns acerbic, compassionate, witty, alienating, memorable and sad; in other words, what you get when an educated man with a richly cultivated sensibility is crammed for years in the guard booth of a sweltering parking lot. 

Like many Russian olim, Pekarovsky, trained as a historian of the Northern Renaissance, is full of scorn for the cramped Levantine staging area into which he has been flung.  Israel does not look pretty from his guard booth. Arrogant high-tech executives, bereaved and brokenhearted parents, dog-eating Thai guest workers, miserable Ukrainian prostitutes, along with unbearable Russian literati, all bake together on the asphalt.  The few genuine idealists who appear, Jewish and Arab alike, are tragically earnest, and doomed.

Pekarovsky's own persona is unashamedly aristocratic and aesthetic—and it works because he is willing to train his hauteur on himself and the shabbiness of his own existence.  Thus, in a classically Israeli story which tells of one bumbling repairman after another wreaking havoc on his home for weeks on end, Pekarovsky is left gazing in admiration at the perfect form of the finished product, even though it is only a kitchen cabinet: "Yes, I thought, Yossi the shlimazl caused us an entire month of grief, but look at it: what classic lines, perfectly joined, the geometric exactitude of the handles' placement . . . regal and restrained." 

In spite of his aloofness, Pekarovsky can also be tender, as when he chronicles the death foretold of a stray cat, whose life, inner and outer, he traces with detail and even dignity.  Or again, in the poignant story of Rachel, a Yiddish-speaking immigrant, who is turned away by uncomprehending hospital staff as she tries to bring her ailing sister a plate of home-made schnitzel.  In a brief swipe at Zionist triumphalism, the only passers-by who understand Rachel or try to help her are a group of Hasidim: "Oh, how they delighted in Rachel's Yiddish—tasty, fleshy, true." 

While Pekarovsky has little respect for organized Judaism—the lone rabbi appearing in his pages is a vain, narrow-minded functionary—one biblical verse ties the whole collection together.  It is Genesis 2:15, in which God places Adam in Eden, "to work it, and watch it."  The watchman's charge forms the crux of his stories and authorial persona, as observer of his society and guardian of his cultural riches and historical perspective.  The call to work, meanwhile, is the focus of one of the best stories in the collection, set in the vast cemetery in Holon, where he worked as a gardener and, on one occasion, a gravedigger for a young soldier.  Much as his guard duty is a far cry from overseeing paradise, his duty to bury this young man could not be more distant from Adam’s charge to tend God’s garden: "Sorrow, sorrow, sorrow!  Of the kind one feels truly physically.  It was as though it wrapped the entire cemetery in black. It lay draped on the branches, hid the sun, and the whole cemetery sank in darkness." 

But Pekarovsky comes to find paradise within himself.  On transferring from the cemetery to the guard booth in the parking lot, he began a different sort of digging, staving off despair and utter vapidity with the Stoic counsel of Marcus Aurelius: "Look into yourself, there you will find the fountain of goodness, it will never run dry, so long as you keep on digging."  And so, he says, "I dug with great energy.  It was lucky I'd gotten experience in the cemetery.  In the end I reached the other side of the wall separating the inner from the outer world.  There unfolded before me infinite spaces, astounding in their legend-like, unusual beauty . . ."

It is, of course, extremely tempting to try and read this book for insight into the Russian aliyah, a tough sociological nut to crack, for which every little bit of understanding helps.  The finely honed mix of engagement and alienation on display here also invites comparisons with the historical and cultural experiences of the Fifth Aliyah, which deposited on the shores of "Palastina" tens of thousands of German Jews, among them accomplished scholars, artists, and intellectuals, many of whom found employment as street sweepers and sausage vendors.  Indeed, the book should jolt all of us out of our deep indifference and awaken us to the seemingly transparent individuals around us—watchmen, gravediggers, and street people.  Pekarovsky perhaps sheds most light on daily life in South Tel Aviv, whose racial tensions recently exploded into public view. 

But I would rather, at the risk of unconscionable kitsch, contemplate the image of the guard, pushed upon us by these insistent yet often maddeningly oblique stories.  Forgive me, but one has to ask, is Israel itself the guard booth?  If so, then who or what are we guarding? And from whom, obvious enemies aside? Guarding a civilization, or the crossroads of several, whose seams run right through us?   What—or, more importantly, whom—does our obsessive national guarding hide from view?

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