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A Whole Loaf (Pat Shelema) by S. Y. Agnon, 1951

A WHOLE LOAF (Pat Shelema)
by S. Y. Agnon, 1951

An overriding theme in S. Y. Agnon's fiction is the seemingly irresolvable conflict his characters feel between the traditional, ancestral past and present, modern circumstances. The tensions inherent in this dilemma and various attempts to resolve it are treated in many of Agnon's best short stories, including "A Whole Loaf" ("Pat Shelema") from the 10th volume of his collected fiction, Samuel VeNireh (1951; also called The Book of Deeds).

As with many of Agnon's short stories, the plot, such as it is, is deceptively simple. The story is set in Jerusalem on the weekend before the feast of Purim. Because his wife and children are abroad, an unnamed first-person narrator has failed to plan for his Sabbath meal, with the result that "the bother of attending to my food fell upon myself." After bathing he decides that he will first attend Sabbath services and then go to a hotel for his meal. On the way he is hailed by Dr. Yekutiel Ne'eman, a prominent scholar, who asks him to mail several registered letters, which the narrator agrees to do. After the services he is not sure where he should go first, the post office or the hotel. After several changes of mind, he opts for the post office.

Just before entering, he meets Mr. Gressler, a prosperous merchant turned arsonist he had known abroad and who takes the narrator for a ride in his carriage. To avoid Mr. Hophni, a talkative, overbearing inventor of a special mousetrap who is coming the other way, the narrator grabs the reins and tries to steer the horses in a different direction, causing the carriage to turn over. Both men fall out and roll about in the muck. The narrator makes his way to the hotel, where he washes off the grime and is then seated in the crowded dining room.

An hour later a waiter arrives, and the narrator tells him to bring anything. "But I want a whole loaf," the narrator adds gravely. After seeing other people served before him and several ensuing mix-ups, the narrator wonders about the letters, which he decides to mail. Jumping up, he bumps into the waiter, who drops the tray holding the narrator's meal. The hotel keeper orders another meal, but it never arrives, not even when the restaurant closes. Waiting for his meal on into the night, he sees a mouse gnawing at leftovers on plates and later a cat, which pays no attention to the mouse. Fearing that the mouse will start nibbling him, he falls to the floor and sleeps until he is awakened by the cleaning staff. He is recognized as "the one who was asking for the whole loaf." Because it is Sunday, he cannot go to the post office. After washing off the dirt, he leaves to get himself some food, for his wife and children "were out of the country, and all the bother of food fell on me alone."

On the surface the story, which is narrated in a direct, seemingly artless style, is simple enough. The amusing, bungling first-person narrator is typical of many of Agnon's stories and is especially prominent in the stories of The Book of Deeds. The title of the collection is highly ironic, for all of the anxious, slightly neurotic narrators fail to complete their respective deeds, and most are unable to fulfill their ritual observances.

An examination of the story's metaphorical and allegorical aspects shows its great complexity. First, the names given, or not given, to Agnon's characters are often significant. Thus, the nameless narrator could be anyone, an everyman. Yekutiel was one of Joshua's associates in exploring the Promised Land; the Hebrew ne'eman (faithful) was an epithet of Moses, who, according to tradition, is said to have died on 7 Adar, the date on which the story takes place. Gressler's name is derived from the German grässlich, which means "terrible" or "shocking" and which refers to his use of arson to collect insurance. The narrator is attracted to the former, who has a Hebrew name, but he is both drawn to and repelled by the latter, who has a German name. The scholarly doctor and the successful arsonist pose a moral dilemma for the narrator. Because of the biblical associations of the doctor's name, he represents orthodoxy and righteousness. This is underscored by the fact that the doctor's letters are "registered" (Hebrew ahrayut, which can also mean "obligation"). Allegorically, the narrator has been charged with keeping the commandments, but he fails to do so. Gressler, with his ill-gotten wealth, represents worldliness and materialism, which deter the would-be righteous person from his or her quest. Even Hophni's name, from hophen (a handful, in the sense of one who is difficult to handle), is allegorical.

The whole loaf the narrator asks for represents not only the traditional braided challah loaf eaten at a Sabbath meal but also the narrator's desire for spiritual completeness in and religious connectedness to the Almighty, which are the rewards for following the commandments. To keep his religious observances, the narrator bathes himself twice; he also falls twice, in the street and on the restaurant floor. The tale ends as it began, with a quest for food—a metaphor for spiritual sustenance—that on another try he might well find.

To give an allegorical sense of place, Agnon describes the night in the hotel dining room in Kafkaesque terms, a device used especially effectively in many of his earlier stories set in eastern Europe. In Agnon's works the hotel is usually a place of worldly pleasure and excitement, one where correct ritual observance and security are not possible and therefore a place of danger. Such locations are often described in grotesque, threatening terms, as in the dreamlike sequence in which the mouse eats scraps and the narrator fears that it might start nibbling on him. The hotel cat, which he refers to as "my salvation," offers no such thing. Instead of pouncing on the mouse, as the proper cat he had at home would have done, this cat ignores the mouse and helps itself to food. Even the animals in this place cannot carry out their assigned deeds.

"A Whole Loaf" is thus a story of deeds undertaken in the pursuit of spiritual wholeness and belonging. Even though the narrator fails, Agnon leaves the reader with an underlying hope that eventually he—and by extension all people—will succeed.

—Carlo Coppola

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