Farkash, we learn, was raised to be a scholar and loved nothing more than studying in the yeshiva: “There I felt as if I were in the Garden of Eden. Completely immersed, beloved by my friends and my teachers.” But when his father dies and his mother gets sick, he is forced to leave school and become an apprentice to a baker. He soon realizes that his new employer is a monster, violent and heartless, who takes all the joy out of Farkash’s childhood. Worst of all, when his beloved mother is on her deathbed, the baker prevents him from going home to see her—a wrong that Farkash struggles all his life to be able to forgive.
Not until the end of the book do we start to understand why the baker might have thought he was doing Farkash a service by teaching him the necessity of toughness. The baker, it turns out, served during World War I with Farkash’s father, a great scholar who enlisted patriotically in the Austrian army. But something happened to him during the war that shattered his spirit, and he was never the same afterward. When Farkash was just 6 years old, he tells Haim, he was summoned to his father’s deathbed to hear about that dreadful incident, and he wants to pass the story along before he dies—but not to his own children, whom he wants to spare its awful burden. Sabato, who is not overly concerned with narrative subtlety, keeps dangling the revelation in front of the reader’s eyes, only to snatch it away: “I still have not told you the painful story about my father … No, no, I cannot do it. The time has not yet come.” Not until the very last pages of From the Four Winds do we get to hear the story, with its unmistakable moral for Jews and Israelis.
From beginning to end, in fact, From the Four Winds is a didactic book. Sabato arranges his story to emphasize the messages he passionately wants to deliver: about the beauty and value of traditional Jewish learning; the dignity of self-sacrifice in a Jewish state; the heroism and suffering of the Jewish past, and the obligations they impose on the present. These are not new ideas, and a reader who has heard them many times before may well resist the wholly unironic way Sabato presents them. But when it comes to stories like Haim’s and Farkash’s, how can irony be enough?