Ye­hoshua maps the dark side of everyday Is­rael

One of Is­rael’s stars of fic­tion uses a fam­ily tale to ex­plore deeper, so­cio-psy­cho­log­i­cal is­sues af­fect­ing the Holy Land

The Jewish Chronicle - - Entertainment -

IT IS more than 50 years since AB Ye­hoshua pub­lished his first short sto­ries. He be­longs to a gen­er­a­tion of Is­raeli writ­ers who, in his words, helped “con­sol­i­date and mould the Is­raeli iden­tity”. Ye­hoshua re­cently wrote a fas­ci­nat­ing es­say about this gen­er­a­tion (which also in­cluded Ap­pelfeld and Oz). The rea­son they spoke to read­ers, he said, is be­cause of the bal­ance they found be­tween “the re­vealed and the hid­den”.

That bal­ance is at the heart of Ye­hoshua’s new novel, about a fam­ily in Is­rael to­day. On the sur­face, ev­ery­thing about them is or­di­nary. Daniela is a mid­dle-aged English teacher in Tel Aviv; her hus­band Ya’ari is a lift en­gi­neer. She goes on a trip to Africa to visit her brother-in-law, Yirmi. Her sis­ter has re­cently died and Daniela feels that she has un­fin­ished busi­ness there. Her hus­band stays be­hind to look af­ter his busi­ness and help with the grand­chil­dren. The chap­ters al­ter­nate: one story fol­lows her trip and what she dis­cov­ers, the other stays with him in Is­rael.

Whole chap­ters go by and lit­tle hap­pens. Ya’ari is called to in­ves­ti­gate a lift that doesn’t work or looks af­ter his grand­chil­dren. The style, too, is de­lib­er­ately flat. At one point, Daniela’s brother-in-law launches a pas­sion­ate de­fence of “sim­ple He­brew” against the “lin­guis­tic dec­o­ra­tion” of the He­brew Bi­ble. Daniela feels that the novel she is read­ing “is gear­ing up for an ab- surd twist”. But there are no ab­surd twists or fancy lan­guage here.

Yet the or­di­nar­i­ness is de­cep­tive, partly be­cause con­tem­po­rary Is­rael is an ex­traor­di­nary place. Even the ques­tion of the lift is not just about faulty en­gi­neer­ing (is it a de­sign prob­lem or the way it was later built?) and be­comes a metaphor for Is­rael. Were the prob­lems of Is­rael to­day al­ready there in the con­cep­tion of the state? Can they be fixed?

Then, as the novel un­winds, it starts to fill with the dead. There is Daniela’s sis­ter, Shuli, who died in Africa, and Shuli’s son, Eyal, killed by “friendly fire” on mil­i­tary ser­vice in Is­rael. The man com­plain­ing about the faulty lift is also in mourn­ing for a son killed in the army. And the book grad­u­ally be­comes con­cerned with the ques­tion: How do we mourn the dead? Can we, should we, let go of their mem­ory?

Daniela’s brother-in-law stays in Africa be­cause he can­not for­give Is­rael, or in­deed Ju­daism, fol­low­ing his son’s ac­ci­den­tal death. He has, as he re­peat­edly puts it, “dis­con­nected”. His wife’s death is al­most in­ci­den­tal to the cen­tral tragedy of his life. Daniela is hor­ri­fied. How can he turn his back on Is­rael, on his wife’s mem­ory and in­deed on life it­self?

With his an­gry at­tacks on Is­rael and Ju­daism — and Daniela’s re­sponse to th­ese — the book comes to life.

Some will find the style too flat, the plot slow, the char­ac­ters too, well, or­di­nary. The trans­la­tion can be clunky. But th­ese lives haunted by loss are pow­er­fully evoked. The ques­tions Ye­hoshua raises are deeply moral. David Her­man is the JC’s chief fic­tion re­viewer

AB Ye­hoshua: raises deeply moral ques­tions be­neath a mun­dane sur­face

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