Monday, August 11, 2008

Homing pigeons

Do you know the scene in "Sleepless in Seattle" when Rita Wilson's character summarises the plot of "An Affair to Remember"? You know the scene... when she becomes so involved in remembering the heartbreakingly romantic ending of the film that she starts to sob, while her husband and Tom Hanks and his son all sit around the dining table and look at her with bemusement. Well, I have had a similar experience with a book I am reading, and which I have been trying to describe to my husband.

I'm still in the middle of reading the book, and still I am so very moved by a few scenes that I find myself compelled to describe them to somebody, and I must say that my husband's reaction was more one of magical delight than bemusement. But as I continued describing more and more plot sequences to him, and as my self-indulgent sobbing became louder and louder, I do believe I saw a bemused twinkle in his eyes, and a little smile twitch at his mouth.

The book is "A Pigeon and a Boy" by Meir Shalev, and I'm reading it in Hebrew, although a quick search showed me that it has already come out in an English translation. The very fact that I am reading it in Hebrew is quite astonishing, because it has been a while since I have had the energy to do so. Having lived in Israel from the age of two to eight I seem to return to this language throughout my life, in ways I can't explain, like a homing pigeon I suppose. I continued my Hebrew studies in school, and have a degree in Modern Hebrew Literature, although I cannot remember ever actually planning to do so. In any case, my brother lives in Israel with his wife and four children, so he occasionally sends me a book from the Israeli bestseller list, and it is usually placed on my shelf at home for the next decade. Unread.

So, I finally picked up this book and read the first line, a first line which I would probably translate as:

"And suddenly," said the elderly American in the white shirt, "up above this hell, suddenly, flew a pigeon."

Now the Hebrew word for pigeon is "yona" which is the same word for a dove. Translating is a damn shame. In any case, moving right along.... Isn't that a great first line? And you know what, even as I write this, my eyes are teary. You see, that was a homing pigeon which was making its way home from a war-zone. Then, still on the first page of the novel, there is a line which just grabbed my heart and squeezed it. The line describes a gun-battle near a church, and every so often a bullet hits the church-bell: "A strange note. At first sharp and high, as if the bell itself is surprised, and then becoming weaker, hurting but not dead, until the next shot. And one of our injured said: "Bells are accustomed to receiving their hits from inside, not outside."

Do you see what I mean or are you smiling at me with bemusement? really doesn't matter, either way.

The plot includes the story of the homing-pigeons and the boy who cares for them, but it is also the modern-day story of the man to whom that elderly American in the white shirt is speaking. That man is an Israeli tour-guide who finds himself in an unhappy marriage and is given a sum of money by his dying mother with the instructions to use that money to "find a house he can call a home." But it's really much, much more than just that because each character has a childhood history which feeds the plot as it meanders back and forth from 1948 to the 21st century, and back again.

What would you think if a homing pigeon landed on your balcony, and you went to help it with its broken wing, and you discovered that it had a little capsule attached to its leg? What if you opened the capsule and read that the note said "Yes or no?" Well, the twelve-year-old girl in this novel is absolutely convinced that it is a love letter from a man to a woman:

The girl felt her heart pound. "It's a 'yes or no' of love. The man wants to know whether the woman agrees."

"Why of love?" the boy demanded. "It could also be a letter between relatives or a business letter or in connection to the Hagana."

But the girl insisted: "This is a love letter. Now the pigeon is here and the man doesn't understand why the woman isn't answering."

This is where I start crying. It's just so beautiful. Later the boy and girl will take the pigeon to the zoo to get help for it, and they will meet the homing-pigeon trainer. At first, the girl doesn't tell him about the note, but eventually she does. She tells him "The pigeon was carrying a love letter." He answers that such a letter sounds much more interesting than the usual letters he sends. "But how much love can one write on such a tiny note?" he asks her. "Three words," she answers him, "yes or no?" "Yes, certainly," he replies. She then takes the note out from her pocket and shows it to him and he smiles and said, "Oh! It really is the note, and I thought you had meant it as a question."

Three little words. A twelve year old girl's explanation. An elderly pigeon-trainer's interpretation. Isn't that just too beautiful for any number of words?


blackbird said...


(I hope you aren't crying.)

Anna said...

Amazon, here I come! I need to read this book, quick.
I know exactly what you mean with that scene in Sleepless... I love it!
My last book tip from you, Diary of a provincial lady, has made a good company this summer. Thanks!

Tuli said...

That is a great opening line.

I've just put a request in for it at the library. :)

Thanks for sharing!

RW said...

I too, shall order it from the library pronto.

Some of my all time favourite novels are written by Chaim Potok - My Name is Asher Lev and the Chosen are pulled off my shelf and read at least every 24 months.

I am amazed that you are reading in Hebrew. AMAZED. I tell you.

eurolush said...

Wouldn't it be fun if we all read a book together and each of us wrote a little something, and we could discuss the plot line and write out our favorite passages and tell each other what we loved or hated about the book?

Wouldn't that be fun?

kim at allconsuming said...


I have a children's book that does this to me. I shall blog about it now.

Anna said...

What a wonderful idea from eurolush! I'm in - I will try to keep this pledge...