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Tregolwyn Book Reviews


by Elisha Porat

Before I started reading this collection of short stories, I knew only that Elisha Porat was an Israeli writer, the 1996 winner of that country's Prime Minister's Prize for Literature. By the time I had read the first few paragraphs of the first story -- Beach Games -- I knew, without a doubt, that I was in the presence of an accomplished author.

The publishers of this e-book, Wind River Press, pride themselves on the quality of their product. It was certainly less error-prone than many comparable offerings, and vastly superior to the bulk of what pass for e-books on many web sites. Since 1998, the author has been experimenting with electronic publication, presumably as a way of getting his English-language work (he writes in Hebrew) to a wider audience. My only reservation is that, not being qualified to read the original, I can't hope to estimate the extent of the debt he owes to his four translators, Alan Sacks being the most widely--employed in this collection. In the absence of any discernible variation in style between the individual stories, I'm prepared to give all the credit to Elisha Porat.

For the average reader, the settings are unfamiliar. The author's military service is the main subject of several of the stories, and forms a backdrop to others; but his soldiers are often cultured, sensitive men, devoted to their homes and families rather than to some abstract concept of nationhood. Sometimes, like Private David in The Smell of Fresh Snow, or Captain Micah in Salamanders on the Northern Road, they go off the rails.

To the author, however, this exotic environment is well-known and loved. We absorb this sentiment from his beautiful turns of phrase:

"Mighty lysthrums suddenly turn violet along the wadi and even a dirty green thicket of raspberry bushes assumes a fresh, invigorating aspect. Now that the long, steamy, suffocating summer has passed, you can fill your lungs with dry, fragrant air."

This is an extract from my favourite of the stories, The High Glass Wall, in which a man on the verge of old age reminisces about his past meetings with the woman he never married. The quoted passage is typical of the general standard throughout this collection, and it is no surprise to learn that Mr Porat is also a poet. He shows impressive powers of capturing character, as well as landscape, in a few clever words:

"There were some pet phrases of his that I always waited for when he spoke. I knew he'd get to them in a moment or two. When he spoke with Michal, it was in the manner of an older, more experienced youth group leader."

It might be possible to quibble with the description of these pieces as short stories. One or two of them have no story to speak of, concerning themselves only with the fleeting thoughts or observations of a single character, as in Oneg Habat. Almost all are in the first person. There can, however, be no argument about their effectiveness.

This is a different type of short story from the genre into which aspiring writers are often encouraged to venture in order to achieve commercial success. An unwritten rule says that such stories must be below a certain word count and have a twist at the end. There is another rule, the one followed by the most successful names in the history of literature, which says that good writing will never be bound by the rules imposed by second-raters.

Published by Wind River Press, 2002

141pp, e-book
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Review by Deborah Fisher
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