Israeli Nobel Prize-winner Agnon (1887-1970) is a founding father, like Theodor Herzl. While Herzl founded Zionism, Agnon (A Simple Story; Shira) forged the language of modern Hebrew literature. In this immense novel, first published in 1945 and now translated into English for the first time, Agnon paints the panorama of the second Aliya, or immigration, of Jews to Palestine, which occurred between the turn of the century and WWI. Isaac Kumer is a young, fervent but feckless young Zionist in the Austrian province of Galicia, whose disappointed father gives him the money to emigrate to Israel. Once Isaac reaches the Land, he becomes a housepainter. As Agnon explains, at first "his brush leads him and he doesn't lead his brush" -- and the same can be said of this book's plot, which goes off on various whimsical tangents. In Jaffa, Isaac tastes his first experience of love with Sonya, a modern woman, but in Jerusalem he meets Shifra, the daughter of a strict religionist, and he is torn between the two. Sonya is an especially fascinating figure; she resembles the "modern" women in Dostoyevski's novels, whose liberation is bound up with an existential hypersensitivity that impedes any clear course of action. Impulsively, Isaac one day paints "Crazy Dog" on the back of a friendly stray. The scruffy canine then wanders around Jerusalem, causing the population to panic. This fantastical subplot "dogs" Isaac's stay in Jerusalem and is interwoven with his fate and that of Shifra's father. Agnon's novel has a folkloric quality analogous to the bold simplifications of Chagall, locating the archaic residue lurking just below the surface disenchantment of modernity. A useful introduction by Harshavinforms readers about the historical background to the story and Agnon's place in 20th-century literature.
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