In 1993, I had breakfast with AB Yehoshua in Haifa. I was writing about his newly published, epic novel Mr Mani. His youngest son, Nachum, had just started military service. Gideon, a paratrooper, had already completed his time with the army. Their father had been a paratrooper. He told me: “As parents, we need to be home in Israel to feed Nachum. Not just literally — to feed him sanity and normalcy. To provide some moral balance between what he hears in the army. Since the intifada, young conscripts are having to behave like policemen. We worry about what our sons may do to the Arabs.”
So, what has changed in 27 years I asked Yehoshua when we met a few weeks ago at the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv, overlooking the Mediterranean. Now 83, obviously Yehoshua (his friends call him Bulli) looks older with his mane of white hair. His gait is slower but his mind is sharp and humorous. His conversation is eloquent and thoughtful. It is sad that the twenty-something blonde Israeli setting up a table for possibly Israel’s most distinguished writer, looks blank at the mention of his name. “Does he write for the newspaper?” she asks, trying to be helpful.
The Tunnel is Yehoshua’s latest novel. Tender, challenging yet surprisingly humorous, it is a story about marriage, memory and the entwined identities of Israeli Jews and Palestinians. It is the most cinematic of all his novels. Not surprisingly, film rights have already been acquired.
Since we last talked, there have been seismic changes in the life of A B Yehoshua. “They are raw. Aharon Appelfeld is gone. Just over a year ago, Amos Oz died. He was one of my closest friends. Together with writer Joshua Knaz, we would often meet for meals in each others’ homes. When Knaz died, and then a dear friend teaching philosophy at at the Hebrew University, I thought, ‘OK, now I want to die, too. My generation of writers has gone. It’s fine. I’ll die. I won’t have to see Netanyahu again.’ But someone had other plans and I’m still here.”
Major surgery meant he had to cancel his apperances at Jewish Book Week, this week. “I have to go through with it. No choice. Will I survive? The doctor is very competent and reassures me that, after a week in hospital and a period of rest, I will be fine.” I’m not sure he believes any of it. “In all my life, I have never spent one day in hospital”. Happily, post op, the news is good.
By far the worst thing to happen to Yehoshua was the more recent death of his beloved wife, Dr Rivka Yehoshua, the distinguished psychoanalyst. “She had a very rapid decline. Some malady with her liver. Two months after suffering from chronic fatigue but, thankfully, not terrible pain, she died in the same hospital as Oz.” Before her death, Yehoshua’s life partner managed to read the first 70 pages of The Tunnel.
Theirs was a long, strong marriage. “We were very close all the time. After she died, I had no idea how I was going to find the strength to finish the book. In some way, writing kept me going — and music, too. I couldn’t look at the news. All I could bear was the music channel, Mezzo, as a consolation. My wife always read the first 70 pages of my books — just so she could tell me it was OK from a literary point of view — that I had something to say. She gave me permission to write about anything.
“Because of the code of confidentiality, I never once heard anything about her patients. When I started Five Seasons, it opened with the death of the wife. A Journey to the End of the Millennium was about a man with two wives. All Rivka asked of me was that I write properly. Our marriage was the liberty for each to follow their own profession to the highest standard we could.”
Yehoshua is a firm defender of marriage. “So many writers are doing business with problem families, divorce, betrayal, mistrust. I want to say that, in my opinion, 50 per cent of marriages are good, friendly, warm relationships.”
Yehoshua and his wife lived in Haifa for 44 years. He taught in the university. She was chief psychologist at the Carmel Hospital.
“In 2012, the children and grandchildren were all in Tel Aviv. Old people need to be near their family so we bought an appartment on the 21st floor of a building in Givatayim. I don’t like Tel Aviv but being near the children made it OK that we moved.”
In The Tunnel, the protagonist Zvi Luria, who had a long career with the Israeli Roads Authority, is in the early stages of dementia. His wife, Dina, a respected hospital based paediatrician, believes her husband should return to some useful volunteer work with his old colleagues. It will be good for the missing pieces of his mind. Yehoshua weaves a story which takes Zvi to the Ramon Crater in the Negev desert where the army are plannning to build a secret road. There is a mystery about a hill standing on the route of the proposed road. A family is living or, possibly, trapped on the hill. Maybe this family should be evicted, or, Zvi believes, a tunnel should be built beneath the hill. “Tunnels between different identities.They are a motif for this small country after the war of independence”.
Tunnel vision perhaps? “Extra religious. National, secular, left, right, oriental Jews — always people clothing themselves in identities.”
Yehoshua’s tunnel is also a frame for Zvi Luria’s slowly worsening decline. “His dementia is based on that of a close friend. His early stages of dementia were with humour and joy. We were able to smile, sympathise and yes, maybe even help. And then gradually we lost him and he was institutionalised.”
In tribute, Yehoshua captures Zvi Luria’s forgetfulness with clever, comedic observation — shopping bags overflowing with too many tomatoes, and a Japanese car which has an Asian woman’s voice and difficult ignition code. They are very confusing. The method used by the retired —now volunteer engineer of the Israeli Roads Authority — to start his car is clever and shocking. Readers may gasp at Zvi Luria’s audacious solution to his memory lapse.
“But we have to forget,” Yehoshua insists. There is too much remembering here. Especially this week.” He means the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
“We have to move on from the Naqbar and the Holocaust. In Israel, the official start of Holocaust Rememberance Day didn’t happen until 1953. Survivors of the Holocaust didn’t demand we remember it.
“This is a very important subject for me. What was happening in the Holocaust was the most terrible defeat of any people in history. Six million people killed for nothing —like microbes. Not for territory, for ideology, for religion, or opinion. But we were not microbes.
“This is my deep Zionism coming from families already here since the l9th century. There is the conception that a Jew can live everywhere but are at home nowhere. We have permission to be everywhere but need to move on.
“There is a mania of remembering and repeating what happened with the Holocaust and the Naqbar when we should live in the present and decide what to do in the future to repair the two societies.
“Jewishness is somehow something partial. Of course you must be a loyal citizen, no doubt about it, but— and I am not religious — every morning a Jew must say, ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’ then bless God ‘who didn’t make me a goy.’ What, in 1948, was the conception of returning home? A Jew doesn’t understand what is homeland and a Palestinian doesn’t change the conception of homeland to home.”
In Yehoshua’s new novel, there is a scene where two characters are on the roof of the hospital looking out into the distance. “We cannot divide this land into two states, ” says one.
“For 50 years, I was a zealot about a two-state solution,” says Yehoshua now. “I always spoke out about it when no one wanted to hear. Unfortunately, we have missed the opportunity. What Trump is bringing, no Palestinian will accept. I can’t believe he will decide the Palestinian future. They don’t want to talk to him. It’s too late. There are too many settlements to evacuate people. We have to find a one-state solution of co-existence as the two million Israeli Arabs have done. You could count on the fingers of one hand the number of Israeli Arabs killed by Israelis and the number of Israelis killed by Israeli Arabs during 70 years of co-existence. That’s a success to honour both sides.
“Ask Palestinians in the West Bank and they will tell you they don’t want a state, they just want Israeli citizenship.”
Twenty seven years ago, Yehoshua told me that he would happily have been in Prime Minister Rabin’s shoes.
“Of course, no question. I would want to be prime minister. I would give back the territories. Then Israel could put up a statue to me, I could retire and go back to my writing.”
‘The Tunnel’ is published by Halban.