Hello Robbie and all you readers out there,
Before I start, I want to issue a formal invitation to our silent readers: do let us know what you thought about the book! Fill up our virtual pigeon loft with your missives!
And now back to the questions at hand:
I am still struggling with the image of the homing pigeon as in some way representing the larger Jewish story. I like your reading of the homing pigeon as being ahistorical, connected to physical or even racial memory. In this reading, we long for the Land of Israel because it’s in our blood, not because of persecution or even ideology.
That said, pigeons also have to be trained—and we are certainly trained in the Diaspora to long for Israel! And as various characters say several times, you have to love your home, or else you won’t go back…how many Israelis leave Israel? Or Diaspora Jews who cannot feel at home in Israel? I find the easy metaphor of Jewish soul as homing pigeon to be a bit simplistic, or maybe outdated.
Perhaps this is a key to understanding the strange “Where are they now?” section that you mentioned and that Helopait also mentioned in a talkback. While the main story is told within the frame of myth in Shalev’s lyrical language, the new first person narrator of the epilogue minimizes, even discredits Yair and his story by telling us what really happened. Although I was confused as to the narrator’s identity, I was moved by the very last paragraphs of the novel, where the old kibbutznik says that “even the pigeons don’t visit anymore.” We no longer live in a time where people feel this homing instinct; we no longer live in the mythical time of homiyah.
In the formal structure of the narrative, the pigeons also play a somewhat implausible historical part. I remember the scenes where the Boy and Girl both travel around the countryside in the early wartime days, leaving pigeons in secure locations to be sent as messengers. Was that part historically accurate: were pigeons really used as messengers during wartime? It seems that even at the time, the pigeons were seen as anachronistic, archaic, laughed at by the soldiers—although the Boy’s final dramatic action does prove their ultimate utility.
And onto some things not about pigeons…
I wanted to bring up one of the most fascinating and elusive characters in the novel, the Girl/Raya/Yair’s mother. We see her through the eyes of the men who love her, for the most part—Yair narrates her story to her, occasionally calling out in direct address. The love story with the Boy is mostly told through his eyes, although the scene where she talks to the pigeon who brings the Boy’s final missive is breathtaking.
What struck me most when I reread the novel a second time is how much we see of her longing and desperation in the first few chapters of the book, long before we learn of her tragically shortened love. Indeed, it seems that her whole adult life was spent mourning her soulmate, and that she was never truly able to connect with Yaakov/“Yordad,” despite his obvious devotion. How else are we to read the scene of frustration, early on, where she gorges herself on figs on Yom Kippur and then shatters the buses’ windows? It seems that by building his house, Yair is trying to prevent himself from feeling as desperate as he saw his mother to be.
How do you see the character of Raya functioning in the novel? Did she compel your imagination, as she did mine? What was she thinking about, all those years? And where did she get the money to give Yair?
Looking forward to your thoughts, Robbie, and to yours, dear readers!