Love in an intractable climate
RE A DERS F A MILI A R with the Middle East’s chaotic politics will know Hillel Halkin as the author of four influential books and numerous commentaries on Israel and the region. Many will affirm that he is also one of the foremost translators into English of some of the best works of Hebrew and Yiddish literatures. Melisande! What Are Dreams? is his first novel. It is set in his native USA and not, as some might expect, in Israel, where he lives.
Unlike some contemporary American fiction, where verbosity passes as mastery, this is a sparse, multinuanced, erudite and exceptionally accomplished literary offering, which makes one regret that Halkin delayed writing novels until now. (Though his biography of Yehuda Halevi does have the sweep of a grand novel.)
Love triangles — whether mythic like Arthur-guinevere-lancelot or purportedly factual like Antony-cleopatra-octavius — are archetypal and have inspired artists of every discipline throughout history. Basically, and often with tragic shades, they recount the story of two, high-born friends who love the same woman.
I i magine Melisande! What Are Dreams? was inspired by Maeterlinck’s play, Pelléas et Mélisande, or by Debussy’s operatic adaptation. However, the altruism and the natural nobility of Halkin’s characters suggest that he was equally stirred by the post-vulgate cycle of Arthurian legends immortalised by Malory in Le Morte d’arthur and by Tennyson in Idylls of the King.
Halkin’s eponymous heroine, Mellie, and her admirers, Hoo and Ricky, meet at high school. Hoo forthwith falls in love with Mellie. Mellie, dismayed by academic conservatism, abandons university. Hoo becomes a classics scholar. Ricky spurns his studies and drifts into Indian mysticism.
During this phase, Mellie and Ricky become lovers. After mental illness afflicts Ricky, Hoo marries Mellie who has always been in love with him. Hoo commits a casual infidelity. Mellie leaves him. Hoo withdraws to a Greek island and, pining for Mellie, reminisces about their time together.
This plot structure is enhanced throughout by the insightful author’s refined psychological and philosophical reflections.
A major boon of archetypal stories is when an artist, while depicting the ecstasies and/or sorrows of the protag- onists, provides further enrichment by delineating the epoch, social mores and cultural tenor of his/her particular version’s setting. Halkin serves this paradigm brilliantly and subtly.
His protagonists, no matter how hard they try to create their personal ivory towers, are nonetheless affected by the intemperate times that shadow their lives. The result is a veritable treat for readers. Moris Farhi’s latest collection of poems, ‘Songs From Two Continents’, is published this week by Saqi
YASMINE (HALBAN, £9.99) is the final part of a trilogy by Eli Amir — a social activist, political adviser and prize-winning author — about JewishIraqi experience in Israel. The first, The Dove Flyer was described by Amir in a JC interview as “a book of dreams” in which “the dreams of all the main characters are broken as they go into exile”. In the second part, Scapegoat, Amir attempted to demonstrate “the cultural and social conflicts between immigrant and sabra”. In Yasmine, he describes a love affair between an Israeli and an Arab in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-day War.
The story is largely autobiographical. Amir’s protagonist, Nuri Imari, a new, young immigrant from Iraq, surprisingly finds himself (as did Amir) advising the Israeli government on Arab affairs, from an office in East Jerusalem. With little guidance, he is asked by his boss to “sniff around” East Jerusalem, and report back. Nuri (whose family also appear in The Dove Flyer) is ambivalent about his position: “I’m an Arab Jew. I listen to classical music in the morning and Arab music in the evening.” In East Jerusalem, he meets Yasmine, a young Palestinian widow, newly returned from Paris and a member of a wealthy Christian family.
Everyone is reeling from 1967 hostilities. The Palestinians cannot comprehend their losses; the Israelis are waking up to a new political reality.
Nuri encounters situations and loyalties he could never have imagined. He tries to steer a humane course but soon finds himself confronting bigotry and hatred on both sides. Falling in love with Yasmine compounds his moral dilemma and forces him to acknowledge the complexities of his position. Their respective worlds are turned upside down.
Amir’s own heritage and experience afford him a unique perspective on this volatile period in Israeli history. The picture he paints is vivid, sensual and full of anguish. And, though he pleads for tolerance and understanding on both sides, after four decades, his call remains largely unheeded.
Hillel Halkin: smooth transition from high-class non-fiction to fictional treatment of love-triangle archetype