By AB Yehoshua
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 absurd 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