Love in an in­tractable cli­mate

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts & Entertainment - SIPORA LEVY

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.

PHOTO: YOAV ETIEL

Hil­lel Halkin: smooth tran­si­tion from high-class non-fic­tion to fic­tional treat­ment of love-tri­an­gle archetype

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