Review: Gabriela Avigur-Rotem’s “Heatwave and Crazy Birds”

Review by Tobias Carroll

Heatwave and Crazy Birds
by Gabriela Avigur-Rotem; translated by Dalya Bilu
Dalkey Archive Press, 401 p.

The overlap of history and memory is fertile ground for many a novelist. Even more resonant, though, are the areas in which they don’t entirely intersect: those vague places in which something might have happened; in which one’s ancestor might have crossed paths with history; in which documentation fails to provide any answers. Gabriela Avigur-Rotem’s Heatwave and Crazy Birds is a dense novel, with bold and subtle shifts in tone throughout, that resides in precisely this overlap.

Set in the early 1990s, the novel is narrated by Loya, a woman recently returned to her hometown in Israel for the first time in decades. In the preceding years, she’s worked as a flight attendant — which is perhaps too bold a symbol of her rootlessness and her restlessness. She returns to settle the estate of Davidi, a recently-deceased colleague of her late father’s, living in his house and deciding what to do with it, reconnecting with old friends, uncovering old memories.

Avigur-Rotem’s tone here is almost comedic: Loya’s initial absorption in her own memories at one point causes her to miss something blatantly obvious (and more than a little dangerous) about the space in which she has chosen to reside. Initially, this suggests that we’re reading a variant on the comedy of remarriage, in which Loya will ultimately reconcile with old friends and lost acquaintances. That isn’t where Avigur-Rotem is going, however — her concerns are ultimately broader, her canvas larger in scope. And throughout the novel, there are subtle shifts in tone, ultimately creating three distinct spaces within the book.

The first third is impressionistic, and largely consists of Loya’s impressions of the house in which she’s come to stay temporarily. As she begins to reach out, the novel moves into its second segment, in which Loya reconnects with old friends, meeting their nearly-grown childen, and falling into a gulf between her memories of them and the current status quo. Here, her distancing has more to do with political discussions; at times, Loya’s profession seems like an overly neat metaphor for her unwillingness to take a side in a debate. Alternately, Avigur-Rotem might be suggesting the opposite: that Loya’s choice of jobs came from precisely this quality, and this reluctance to engage with specific issues.

But from there, the novel has one more transition to make, and it’s a bold one, rooting Loya’s story in a historical context. Through a series of conversations, a search through decades-old documents, and a host of translations, much of Loya’s life is given a new context. This provides the novel with some of its most powerful moments, but it also prompts some of its more awkward ones. Most notably, there’s a scene in which Loya watches Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah with another character; for several pages, Avigur-Rotem simply describes what’s happening in the documentary, without any commentary. (It’s a similar device to one that turns up in the occasional Javier Marías novel, albeit with more in the way of a character’s impressions of the film or book in question.) That this scene is followed by one in which we’re given more of a perspective on what’s happening on screen makes the preceding pages that much more frustrating.

Ultimately, Avigur-Rotem’s novel does leave a significant impression: its pacing, once revealed to be deliberate, is fitting both for the weight of its subject and the languorous way in which its narrator moves through a dense, humid landscape. Its deliberation can occasionally work against it, but in the end Loya’s travels through geography, lost history, and interpersonal frustrations made for a compelling read.