Monday, October 18, 2010

"Four Meals"

The novel Four Meals by Meir Shalev portrays several strong-minded characters living in Israel before and soon after Israeli independence. The book is very sensual, describing tastes, smells, the beauty of the landscape, and deep feelings among the characters. It's hard to describe the technique of writing -- reading is almost like looking close up at an impressionist painting and then stepping back and seeing a street scene or a row of trees or a grain field.

Each section of the book describes a meal served to the narrator by Jacob, one of his three possible fathers. The meals take place at very long intervals and different stages of their lives. The food at each meal includes a delicious dessert, a foamy combination of wine, sugar, and eggs that the father learned once from an Italian POW during the war -- a man who made a big impression on him. Tastes and smells echo throughout the book, gathering significance.

The book begins:
"On warm days, a soft smell of milk rises from the walls of my house. The walls are plastered and whitewashed, tiles cover the ground, but from the pores of the walls and the cracks of the floor, the smell rises to me, persists, steals in like the sweat of an ancient love.

"Once my house was a cowshed... And a woman lived in the cowshed, she worked and slept in it, dreamed and wept. And on a bed of sacks she gave birth to her son."
Much is hinted in these initial words, along with a glimpse of the mother's eccentric nature. As the novel proceeds, more and more tastes, smells, and complex Israeli experiences merge into an overall impression of life in that long-ago time.

One taste that recurs is salt. A character named Judith may have been the narrator's half-sister. Or not. But she made cheese and pickles "salty-spicy little cucumbers she pickled in jars in the window of the cowshed ... Many times I have tried to make pickles like hers, and didn't succeed, but I can evoke the memory of their smell in my nose and then I slide my tongue over my teeth... salty salty salty salty salty salty salty ytlas ytlas ytlas ytlas ytlas ytlas ytlas..." (p. 132)

Jacob, who cooks the four meals, says "cooking salt is better than table salt that dissolves altogether. But in the soul, love with worry and with hate should be mixed together, and anger with longing with fear with a little joy should be mixed together. Otherwise it cuts you up in pieces." (p. 164)

Much later at another meal Jacob describes how he felt very sorry for Italian who taught him the key recipe: "Not because he escaped from the POW camp... But because he sat down at the table and three fingers he put into the bowl of salt and put some for himself on the palm of his other hand and from there he licked the salt with his tongue just like a cow from her stone in the trough." (p. 262)

Each meal ends with the key dessert: "Jacob boiled a pot of water on the fire, cracked an egg into the palm of his had, slipped the white between his spread fingers, and put the yolk into the bowl. A little wine, a little sugar, and the whisk was gleaming in his had, steam rose, and the warmth emitted the smell of wine in the air." (p. 248)

Finally, the narrator makes the dish for himself "and all at once the rich fragrance of zabaglione rose in the air. ... I stood up and slid my tongue over my top teeth from right to left and from left to right sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet teews teews teews teews teews teews teews teews teews teews teews teews teews" (p. 282)

The aromas and tastes that support this story, which is at the same time realistic and fairy-tale-like, are presented in a very special way, making it a quite imaginative book.

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