Anna and the Swallow Man, by Gavriel Savit, is a beautiful, poignant novel for teens and adults. It reaches deep inside the soul because it is told in allegories – the only way of explaining war to a child – in the same way The Cellist of Sarajevo does – a book so touching, that, upon finishing, I put my head down on the table and sobbed for Arrow (Alyssa), my forever hero, like Miriam in A Thousand Splendid Suns.
Seven year-old Anna and Swallow Man are caught between the Wolves (the Germans) and the Great Bear (the USSR) in 1939 Poland. Swallow Man protects Anna with tall tales, such as: they are “partnered conservationists” following the last example of a rare and beautiful bird around a battleground upon which an endless pack of Wolves and a Great Bear the size of a continent were pitched in endless war.” As he spins yarns, though, and as the years of hiding pass, little Anna senses “the truth hidden beneath the story hidden beneath the truth of the world.”
Two truths lie in the refrains: “Baruch atah Adonai, mechaye hameytim/Blessed are You, my God who puts life in the dead,” and, “Human beings are the best hope in the world of other human beings to survive.”
In the end, Swallow Man tries to teach her the importance of and power in questions: “Knowledge is very important, because the things we know become our tools, and without good tools at our disposal, it is quite difficult to remain alive in the world. But knowledge is also a kind of death. A question holds all the potential of the living universe within it. In the same way, a piece of knowledge is inert and infertile. Questions are far more valuable than answers, and they do much less blowing up in your face. If you continue to seek questions, you cannot stray far off the proper road.”
Savit’s first novel is an amazing accomplishment. I like his allegorical writing and his way of concretizing intangibles to make them meaningful: “Disappointment, though heavy, is an easy enough thing to pack away in a suitcase—it has straight edges and rounded corners, and it always fits into the last remaining empty space. Hope is much the same. But somehow the hybrid of the two is something much less uniform—awkward, bulkier, and no less heavy. It is far too delicate to pack away. It must be carried along in the hands.”