Aharon Megged’s “The Flying Camel and the Golden Hump”

Reviewed by Tsipi Keller

Image of Aharon Megged’s “The Flying Camel and the Golden Hump”

"Every book one opens, one finds in it things not found before."—S. Y. Agnon

Published in Israel in 1982, and narrated in forty-two titled chapters, The Flying Camel and the Golden Hump, is an octopus of a novel, its referential tentacles reaching deep into the Western literary canon, as well as into the Mishna and the Talmud, all very much alive and vivid in the protagonist's, Kalman Keren, large and generous imagination.

Keren, a recently divorced forty-year-old author, leads a quiet and peaceful life in a four-storied apartment building on 39 Avigdor Street, in north Tel Aviv. He is writing a new novel, a novel to end all novels, which, he hastens to tell us, is indeed an ambitious undertaking, but natural to a writer of Dante's, Goethe's, Musil's, Joyce's – to name a few – ilk (cf. The Great American novel). The neighbors – nine in all – know each other and often exchange stories and gossip on the street or on the staircase. This idyllic cosmos is turned upside down when Dr. Klausner, a learned and sophisticated man in the old European fashion, "upon whose face rests the soft splendor of an autumn sunset," passes away, and Professor Schatz, a young, hardnosed and venomous critic, moves into the fourth floor, right above Keren's apartment, and thus the conflict between the 3rd and 4th floor begins: "…a literary critic living right above a writer, walking on his head, as it were…."

There's no escaping the tireless, abrasive Schatz who bangs at all hours on his typewriter, discharging yet another deadly attack on yet another innocent victim, not to mention the additional nuisance and perceived insult of, "The gurgle of flushing water was heard, flowing in the toilet, swirling and streaming in a noisy rush down the pipe from him right past me…"

Keren's projects – the budding novel of twenty-three pages, and an attempted translation of Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel (the chapter, The Hebraization of Rabelais, is a literary gem about translation) – come to a standstill. And yet, if indeed it was the devil himself who had dispatched Schatz to the apartment above, God is also present in the image of Naomi, Schatz's attractive wife, who is, thankfully, smart and caring, very much like Keren himself, and nothing like her husband. One day, he glimpses her sunbathing on the roof, and like King David at the sight of Bat-Sheba, Keren is love- and lust-struck.

And so, while the drama on the physical plane unfolds, the other, and perhaps greater, drama takes place in Keren's fertile and sometimes febrile mind. He's tormented with self-doubt, noting that "…lives rich in event, full of stormy emotions, loves hates, heart-rending quarrels, illness.…when they are written down they shrink and wither between the covers…" while, in fact, his own (Megged's) work belies such a statement. And while Keren and Schatz are engaged in a futile, if brutal, battle of words, and the neighbors take sides, the rabbits on the roof—placed under Keren's care after Dr. Klausner's death—go about their business: "When I peeked into the rabbit hutch, my eyes lit up at the sight of five babies….all damp and licked clean….During the very hours I was brooding over Avraham Uri Kovner [the notorious 19th century critic, just as rabid as Schatz] she was bringing her offspring into the light of the world."

The Flying Camel, in Eden's fluid and elegant translation, is first and foremost a humane and intelligent book, replete with literary and historical allusions associatively integral to the text, and everywhere sprinkled with subtle humor and wit: "And only because I do not wish to sully my pen….shall I refrain from describing the impassioned scene which ensued on Victoria Azoulai's green plush sofa. Especially since the portrait of Maimonides gazed down upon us from the wall."

Megged, the recipient of numerous awards, including the Israel Prize for Literature (2003) and the Koret Award in Fiction (2004), has been publishing literary fiction since the 1950's. Also available in translation from Toby Press are his, Foiglman; The Living on the Dead; and Mandrakes from the Holy Land.

Tsipi Keller is a novelist and translator. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Award and of CAPS and NYFA awards in fiction, and the author, most recently, of the novels Jackpot (2004) and Retelling (2006), both published by Spuyten Duyvil.