Five-year-old Haim is baffled by many things, especially by his new neighbors in Jerusalem. Haim and his family have moved there from Egypt, where “we were all used to open homes, neighbors coming and going without asking permission, windows wide open… the voices of children joyfully playing all around.” His new neighbors, who arrived from Europe, are closed in behind locked doors and shuttered windows, their rooms as dark as the history that young Haim has yet to discover.
These are not the only contrasts between the world that Haim has known and the one he has entered. The boy tries to navigate this new culture on his own, doing his best to decipher the words and traditions so foreign to him. He doesn’t understand why people speak of other lives any more than he understands why children dress as cowboys and Indians during Purim. “At the time, I didn’t ask any questions, but everything entered my heart and made an impression upon it,” he writes. The Holocaust that pervades daily life is not part of Haim’s young world, yet it defines his new society, drawing boundaries that will limit and challenge the boy despite his innocence.
Haim’s teacher, the gentle and wise Farkash, skillfully directs the boy toward understanding as Haim grows in stature and knowledge. Farkash, of course, has another life of his own, as well as a secret that haunts him. In time, he reveals to Haim that he has memorized every word of the letters written to him by his mother, because “…the letters were taken from me by those thieving scoundrels whose names I will never mention.” The letters are poems, rhymes devised by Farkash’s sensitive mother that pull together much of the unfolding narrative. The poetry of Farkash’s mother and others weaves in and out of what is, in a sense, a spiritual journey undertaken by Haim without his full awareness of destination.
From the first days of Haim’s awareness of his surroundings to the eventual revelation of Farkash’s secret, From the Four Winds remains a mesmerizing tale of order pulled from chaos and of strength born of faith. Written in Hebrew by the esteemed Haim Sabato and translated to English by Yaacob Dweck, From the Four Winds is an extraordinary semi-autobiographical novel that keeps readers breathless from the first page. While most will know what greater foundation lies behind so much of the behavior that puzzles Haim, individual stories decorate this tale. Not only Farkash, but the old lady who comes out of her darkened apartment once a day to purchase half a loaf of bread and a container of yogurt, and Mr. Ulmi the poet, who needs silence, and all the souls whose stories are told by other characters are bricks in Sabato’s wall.
In lyrical prose, Sabato unveils one answer after another, drawing readers into the larger mystery like a master of suspense. The sophisticated structure of From the Four Winds mimics the way in which Haim gains understanding – as we all gain understanding — in the process of maturation and affects us on a subliminal level. With a deft touch, Sabato’s subtle style employs shadow and light to describe the majestic theme of his story. Despite the bleak emotional background, From the Four Winds is a hopeful and inspirational story of community and courage.