The Sad and Ambitious Girls of the Province

Yaara Shehori On:

The Sad and Ambitious Girls of the Province by Nurit Zarchi

“We were once children/ but that is of course a lie” Nurit Zarchi wrote in a poem titled “The Tattooed Ship” and there is reason to wonder what we are lying about. In Zarchi’s stories, when the truth is diverted from the inner world to the world of actualities, it is pushed aside under various pretexts; it is too much and too little, it doesn’t correspond to some sort of popular opinion or good taste. And about the poem, is the lie that we ever did, somewhere, have a childhood? Or is the lie in the presumption that childhood had ever ended? That there is this “once”? Does childhood continue in the bodies that have grown, some acquiring beauty while others ungainliness.
Bella, the protagonist of “The Sad and Ambitious Province Girls”, the story with the Chekhovian title, is not a child. Not even a young girl perhaps. She is a woman and a mother. But the world still seems to see her as a child. Those who come across her doubt the fact that she herself could have children, which insinuates – the ability to reproduce and become part of the existing order. But Bella herself discovered the secret of reducing the world in childhood (which is of course the opposite of multiplying). Then “she discovered that if you put pressure on the bottom of your eyelid, everything becomes smaller, grows distant – the classroom, the children, the teacher – until it spreads across the eye.” It seems as if this relation remains for her the primary relation.
But not everything scatters. Not immediately. Because Bella, a province girl who has been placed in the city, finds herself facing the fluttering heart of things. The days are days of war, probably the 1973 Arab–Israeli War, and Bella works in the archives of a daily newspaper. She cuts out photographs and articles from the newspaper with her scissors. Bereaved parents come to the archive, like pilgrims, trying to use photographs that appeared only yesterday in the newspaper to identify their son’s blurred portrait. Repudiate the facts. Question the actuality of their soldier son being missing or dead.
Bella believes that the main thing is to live. But that truth is pushed aside in the name of values that are considered nobler, more cultured. “Nonsense,” she is told, “The main thing is how you live.” It is this claim, which is made on the grounds of culture and values and tastefulness, on the grounds of the fine and the worthy, which Zarchi questions. Because Nurit Zarchi, like her protagonists, who will speak the English of the kibbutz even if they do fraternize with fairies, knows where the difference lies. She is enchanted by the beauty, but not by the fine and the good. To her, life will always be better than death and the need to breathe stronger than the “how” to breathe, than the “should be” and “what everyone does” that peeps from underneath what seemingly stands to reason. And there is a reason for this being one of her most political stories. In Zarchi’s work, the world sometimes has to reduce itself and become blurred only so that we can find a way to live in it. Even if we do confront various Frankenstein-like creatures, made of memory, old newspapers and popular opinions, eventually, the world does exist. But that, of course, may also be just a lie.

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