When We Danced on Water
(Harper Perennial, 2011)
The scene is a small café in Tel Aviv. An 84-year-old male ballet phenomenon engages his waitress in conversation. He always orders the same thing: espresso, a side of steamed milk, water with lemon. Initially she ignores his advances, but quickly succumbs to his persistence. His name is Teo, and one of his eyes is blue, the other green. Her name is Vivi, and she is half his age. And they have a lot more in common than either could imagine.
Teo challenges Vivi when she admits to being an artist. She paints, sculpts, takes photographs, and practices just about any other art form. Teo accuses her of being a dabbler, arguing that in order to be a great artist, one must pick a form of art and make it one’s life’s passion, if not an obsession. For Teo, “mediocrity is the true evil.”
Though the ideas tossed back and forth across the coffee table regarding the creative process are stimulating, the dialogue comes off unnatural, as if written by an amateur—certainly not the highly praised, award-winning author of Light Fell. But as the characters drop their armor, a deeper friendship is formed, and parallel life experiences are revealed, Fallenberg’s language jolts itself out of its hesitant beginning and swiftly rises with the craftily woven plot.
Teo condemns Vivi for wasting her life, claiming that without his ardent devotion “there would still be no classical ballet in Israel.” Yet after talking with her, he begins to question whether he has made the right decisions in his life, and particularly regrets not having a family; he’d like to fill a special role in someone’s life besides that of a teacher. Vivi’s mother persistently asks when she will “start her life,” even though Vivi is 44—as if her life cannot begin until she has children or a career. Indeed, Vivi is contemplating artificial insemination. Exploring this common hole in their lives, Vivi and Teo reveal their pasts to each other piece by piece, finding that they were both traumatized and closed off by the same things, separated by 40 years: the city of Berlin, a German man, and the Holocaust.
Vivi tells her story first. While in the army in the ’90s, she meets and falls in love with a German gentile volunteering in Israel. Shunned by her peers and family, she moves to Berlin to be with her boyfriend. But the city haunts her. Taking daily walking tours with a dwarf who exposes the ugly, violent, anti-Semitic history of every corner in Berlin, Vivi becomes paranoid, believing Berliners are calling her derogatory names. She feels the guilt of the city and transfers this guilt to her relationship, thinking that the only reason her boyfriend is with her is because he, as a German, feels guilty towards Jews. She aborts their baby and flees back to Israel, subsequently denying any love in her life.
As their friendship/flirtation develops, Vivi becomes obsessed with Teo’s past, creating a multimedia exhibition of his life for his 85th birthday. After trying to bury his memories for so long, Teo is upset by seeing his life so plainly exposed, though the exhibition is a success and a career catalyst for Vivi. After a brief falling out, Teo eventually relates to Vivi what he has not been able to understand himself: what happened to him during the Holocaust. It is this story that provides the intriguing core of Fallenberg’s novel, as well as a bridge between the two characters.
Fallenberg’s paradoxical propositions of passion as suffering, and that a life without passion is devoid of meaning, leaves us with an insolvable quandary and a Buddhist diagnosis: life is suffering, one way or another. Yet, unsurprisingly, Fallenberg offers an un-Buddhist conclusion: only through forming meaningful, interpersonal relationships can this suffering be alleviated.