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I Never Even Lived Women in the Novel

Women in the Novel: Role Models

Most of the significant characters whom Tzili meets are women. These meetings comprise her education as a woman. To some extent the women fill the vacuum left in the absence of a mother. The gentile prostitutes, Maria and Katerina; Mark’s wife; the foreign nurse in the field hospital; and Linda, the Jewish cabaret singer accompany Tzili, in imagination or in reality, in the decisive moments of her coming-of-age. Each woman’s unique character and story lend the isolated Tzili a broader view of women, handing down a kind of women’s “tradition”.

Tzili’s instinctively presents herself as the daughter of the prostitute Maria, which grants her a powerful woman’s tool for survival. As Maria’s daughter Tzili enters, unaware, a marginal social area where Jews and non-Jews, and the sacred and the profane, mix together. In this marginal area Tzili is protected from antisemitism. She is rejected, but at the same time she “belongs”: “‘Who do you belong to?’ ‘Maria.’ ‘Which Maria?’ And when she did not reply the peasant woman understood which Maria she meant, snickered aloud, and said: ‘Be off with you, wretch! Get out of my sight.'” (111). At the beginning Tzili uses this connection in order to hide her identity as a Jew with the blind man who tries to rape her. But later she chooses to be identified with Maria:

On the way to the plains she would wonder about Maria, whose name she had so unthinkingly adopted. The more she thought about her, the clearer her features grew. A tall, proud woman, she gave her body to anyone who wanted it, but not without getting a good price. And when her daughters grew up, they too adopted their mother’s gestures, they too were bold. (96)

Tzili essentially creates the character of Maria from memory, adopting her as a mother and using her as a role model of womanliness as she sees it — a combination of beauty, abandonment and assertiveness. In addition to an imaginary mother Tzili adopts another mother and actually lives with her for a time. This is Katerina, who, like Maria, is also a gentile prostitute. According to Yigael Schwartz:

As Katerina’s daughter, Tzili attaches herself strongly to the same strange fusion of identities that she chose for herself when she chose Maria as a mother. The combination of contradictory elements is clear from their first meeting, with its obvious symbolic and ritualistic nature. Katerina orders Tzili, as soon as she takes her into her home, to remove her mildewed clothes and put on “a fancy city gown, flowered and soaked in perfume.” (30) This old gown, it becomes clear as the story continues, is the metonym of an experience whose heroines are both the gentile village prostitutes and the urban Jewish women. This hybrid experience, represented by Katerina and Maria “who had a lot of good times together in the city, especially with the Jews” (31) enchants Tzili.32

Katerina is the most developed role model of a woman that Tzili adopts. Her home, stories and belongings — “Gilt powder boxes, bottles of eau de cologne, crumpled silk petticoats and dozens of lipsticks” (46) — are connected in Tzili’s consciousness to a sense of secret charm. More than any other character she happens to meet, Katerina teaches Tzili women’s place in the world:

Of the extent to which she had been changed by the months with Katerina, Tzili was unaware. Her feet had thickened and she now walked surely over the hard ground. And she had learned something else too: there were men and there were women and between them there was an eternal enmity. Women could not survive save by cunning. (46-47)

Katerina’s violence, exploitation and plotting, along with her noticeable poverty, do not spoil Tzili’s special feeling for her. On the contrary, Tzili would prefer to return to Katerina rather than to the humiliations of her parents’ home. (47-48)

A seemingly fated alliance is formed between Tzili, the Jewish girl survivor, and these marginal figures of women.33 The alliance crosses the normative boundaries of gentile society both with respect to lifestyle and in relationship to another marginal group, the Jews. Tzili and the women survive in the gentile man’s world as a weak minority characterized by two points: sex characteristics, the fact that they are women, and ethnic characteristics, their existence as Jews and non-Jews who mix together. These women, whether Jews or not, are victims of a reality ruled by men. For this reason, they do not internalize the dominant culture, nor do they disappear within it. They create a subculture which is borne within them, expressed in their bodies and in their experiences.

At the end of the novella Tzili is adopted by yet another marginal figure, fat Linda, the Jewish singer who stops the convoy in order to pick up Tzili (165). Linda combines integrity with a natural sense of justice and blunt womanly vulgarity. Like Tzili she is a girl-woman, a fact which is noticeable when she speaks about herself in the third person, and in the way she speaks about her situation: “I too have nobody left in the world. At first I didn’t understand, now I understand. There’s the world, and there’s Linda.” (181) The childish directness with which Linda defines this positive stage in becoming a mature human being becomes cruel and bitter in light of historical reality. This awareness is not psychological but simply describes the actual situation.

A common fate places Linda and Tzili together on a refugee ship to Palestine. Unlike the passive and introverted Tzili, Linda is brash and extroverted. She protects Tzili from the ruthless crush of refugees at the same time that she exposes the misery of their fate in her blunt talk. The end of the novella sheds a grotesque light on potential life in Palestine for the child-women. Linda, who is drunk, sings Hungarian lullabies to a bottle of cognac (instead of a baby), indicating the terrible way war distorts women’s roles. [Index Return]

 


25Published in Hebrew as HaKutonet Vehapasim (The Coat and the Stripes) (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1992). [RETURN]
26 For other approaches (in Hebrew) see, for example, Hillel Barzel, “Historisophia and Poetica,” Alay Siach 23 (1985): 139-155; Dana Kleinov, “Aharon Appelfeld’s The Coat and the Stripes,” Meebefneem 46(1984): 402-404; Sarah Halperin, “Innocence and the Power of Suffering in The Coast and the Stripes,”Hadoar (12.27.86); Halperin, “Displaced by the Side of the Road,” Hadoar (1984); Halperin, “Mutual Relations between Humiliation and Self-Respect in The Coat and the Stripes,” Hadoar (1985); Yigael Schwartz, The Lament of the Individual and the Eternal Tribe (Jerusalem: Keter & Magnes, 1996), 163-178. [RETURN]
27 All page numbers refer to Tzili trans. Dalya Bilu (Middlesex: Penguin, 1984). On the significance of this sentence see Schwartz, 163, 177- 178. [RETURN]
28 See above note. [RETURN]
29 Schwartz discusses this event as part of his description of Tzili as a coming-of-age story which relates to the folk legend genre and its ritual stages, 170. [RETURN]
30 Schwartz, 175. [RETURN]
31 Schwartz, 177. [RETURN]
32 Schwartz, 177. [RETURN]
33 Katerina and Maria know each other from the good times they once shared in the big city. Since she thinks that Tzili is Maria’s daughter, Katerina takes Tzili under her wing, educates her according to the values of her world, and exploits her as well. [RETURN]
34 See Genesis: 37-50 [RETURN]
35 About the expression of religious despair in Appelfeld’s works in general and this story in particular, see Schwartz 143-194. [RETURN]
36 The biblical striped coat (more commonly referred to in English as “the coat of many colors”) is a cotton jacket embroidered with alternating, colored stripes. This type of jacket was considered prestigious, granted to loved ones to call attention to the respect in which they were held. Also Tamar wears a striped coat, a custom of the virgin daughters of the king. (Samuel II, 13:18). See Halperin, “Displaced by the Side of the Road,” Hadoar 63, (1984), 506. [RETURN]
37 “This symbol has once again become a real item of clothing, but with negative connotations, as the coat of the ‘lost’ La play on the Hebrew word for stripes-translator]: the striped pajamas of prisoners, worn by the victims of the Nazis in the concentration camps. The image of refugees in ‘the striped coats they had been given by the Joint [Distribution] Committee’ (184) on the ship making its way from Naples to Palestine, may be seen as a meta-realistic picture. On the realistic level, it simply represents the kind of new clothing the Jewish refugees received at the end the war, on their way to a new life. On the abstract symbolic level, it hints at idea that despite their liberation from the German murderers at the end of the war, the refugees have not been completely liberated from the imprisonment and enslavement that made their mark upon them, the uprooting from home, and the torture in the camps.” Halperin, “Displaced”.[RETURN]
38 Schwartz, 174. [RETURN]