DECEMBER 25, 2006
A Woman in Jerusalem
By A.B. Yehoshua
Translated by Hillel Halkin
(Harcourt, 237 pp.,
According to the Jewish calendar, the day begins at sundown. Thisruns counter to the way most people experience time, but it makes apeculiar sense in the novels of A.B. Yehoshua, in which the mostimportant activities almost always take place at night, and themain characters are insomniacs, either by choice or by compulsion.In The Lover, Yehoshua's first novel, published almost thirty yearsago, the owner of an auto repair shop takes to driving around in atow truck during the early morning hours in search of a man who hasmysteriously disappeared. More recently, The Liberated Bride--aglorious romp of a novel that bursts with genres (family romance,campus satire, epistolary novel, folk tale) andpersonalities--features an extended sequence in which an Israeliprofessor of Arab studies, accompanied by an Israeli Arab driver,attends a midnight mass at a Christian monastery to hear therhapsodic singing of a Lebanese nun who is said to faint at theheight of her religious ecstasy.
In the world of Yehoshua's fiction, the night frees people fromtheir inhibitions, leaving them receptive to experiences or ideasthat they might not normally entertain. He exploits to the fullestthe hyper-alert, restless state of excitement that results fromstaying up all night, and which makes his characters vulnerable toslipping beyond the realm of rational behavior: one does not haveto be asleep for the sleep of reason to produce monsters. And theconsequences rebound into the day that follows, as his exhaustedheroes (they are usually men) often find themselves recovering fromtheir adventures in unexpected beds.
The entire first section of Yehoshua's strange and beautiful newnovel takes place over the course of a single evening. The humanresources manager of a prominent bakery is ordered to stay late atthe office to track down the identity of a woman killed in a recentsuicide bombing, who was carrying no papers other than a pay stubfrom the company. Her employers have learned of the death throughan advance copy of an article scheduled to appear in a tabloid,headlined "The Shocking Inhumanity Behind Our Daily Bread," whichindicts both the bakery's owner and the manager for the callousnessof not having noticed the loss of one of their workers; her bodyhas lingered in the morgue for a week, unidentified and unclaimed.It does not take the manager long to determine that the bakery wasnot technically responsible for the woman: she was no longerworking there at the time of the bombing. But the newspaper refusesto cancel its story, and the manager, investigating why she waskept on the payroll despite her firing, finds himself drawn into astrange chain of obligation that ends with him personallysupervising the return of the woman's body to her native village.
Nearly all the book's characters are identified only by theirtitle--"the human resources manager," "the owner," "the secretary,"and so forth. (The book's title in the Hebrew original is thepainfully literal The Assignment of the Human Resources Manager;Yehoshua's American publisher seems to have preferred somethingkitschier, and more ethnically identifiable.) The sole exception isthe dead woman, whose name, the manager discovers, was YuliaRagayev. Her homeland, also never identified, appears to besomewhere in the former Soviet Union; there she was trained as anengineer, but the only employment the bakery could offer her was asa cleaning woman. A non-Jew, she came to Israel with a Jewishboyfriend, and after he left her she decided to stay. "BecauseJerusalem I like. Is interesting place," she told the humanresources manager during her interview, of which he has norecollection. She made a greater impression on the night shiftsupervisor, who became so obsessed with her that he feared for hismarriage if she continued to work at the bakery, as he confides tothe manager late that night in the company's cafeteria. Heconvinced her to leave her job and look for a better one, but hekept her on the payroll "so that if she failed to find anything, orif he missed her too much, she could always return."
A novel about the victim of a suicide bombing cannot shrug off itspolitical freight, a burden that Yehoshua intensifies by dedicatinghis book "to the memory of our friend Dafna who was killed in aterrorist attack on Mount Scopus in the summer of 2002." Referencesto the continual state of terror appear frequently, regardingeverything from the manager's familial obligations-- he needs toget home to drive his daughter to her dance class, since "what withall the bus bombings, they didn't want her taking publictransportation"--to the weather, a torrential rain "on which wepinned a desperate hope: that more than all our policemen andsecurity guards, it might cool the suicidal zeal of our enemies."(The novel's reflections on the impact of terrorism are not limitedto the Jews: at one point it is noted that the bakery must step upits production due to "a closure imposed on the Palestinianterritories--a measure that invariably meant an increase in theinhabitants' consumption of bread, as opposed to more expensivefoods.") Yehoshua's tone is always light, even humorous, so theseasides feel less like polemical digs than simply observations aboutIsraeli life.
Indeed, despite its subject, A Woman in Jerusalem is not a politicalnovel, in the sense of a work constructed to make a politicalpoint. Rather, it uses its political subtext--a subtext that canhardly be avoided if one is to write a realistic novel aboutmodern-day Israel--as the basis for a deeper inquiry into howliving under the constant threat of terror has affected thecountry's inhabitants. What does it mean for a society when aperson, even an immigrant cleaning lady with few acquaintances, cansimply disappear without anyone taking note of it? How, the novelasks, did human life become so devalued?
The word "humanity" is repeated almost liturgically throughout thenovel's first section, as the human resources manager visits themorgue and then the dead woman's rented room in an effort to findout all he can about her, which in the end is as patheticallyslight as the few possessions he gathers in a suitcase to carryhome for her. The attack in which she died has already beenovershadowed by a more recent incident; and so at the hospital hemust remind the guard that the corpse that he seeks was a victim of"last week's bombing, which no one remembered anymore." Viewing therows of bodies in the morgue, he comments that "a visit here is amust. It gives you a sense of what's important. " "And of whatisn't," the lab technician accompanying him responds. Ironically,in a country where it is not unknown for body parts to litter thestreets, one must visit the morgue in order to become aware ofdeath.
Later, the manager asks the technician if he is religious. "No, theman replied. Yet there were times when anyone working here had tobelieve in something. Otherwise you could lose your humanity,watching so much life drain away." This, we come to realize, is thereal toll of terrorism, which will drain a country of its veryhumanity, in both senses of the word--its people, but also itsability to account for and to care for them all with the dignity towhich they are entitled. Yehoshua has said that he wrote this novelafter the start of the second intifada,
when the question was what to do with these constant deaths. Israelisociety, I saw, was repressing these deaths. When a bus orrestaurant was blown up, the bus was taken away, the streets werecleaned and normal life returned. This was a kind of a formula--wehave to keep normal life. We don't have to be affected by this, aswe don't know how to mourn. The heart was becoming hard, very hard.And this was the place which I wanted as a writer to open.
Why else is a corpse the only character to be given a name? Yulia'shumanity is restored to her in death, but the human resourcesmanager will have to continue to struggle for his own.
The investigation of humanity is, of course, the highest task of thenovelist, whose primary subject, no matter his formal or aestheticinclinations, must always be the human character. Throughout hiscareer, Yehoshua has been deeply interested in the literaryinvestigation of human psychology: the mind's opacities andstratagems, its unfathomable motives, its perverse desires, itspeculiar shames. He has most often chosen to conduct theseexplorations in a distinctive form that, despite its grateful debtto Faulkner, he has made his own: his novels are commonly narratedin the voices of multiple characters, which offer a second or thirdor fourth interpretation of scenes we think we have alreadyunderstood. Over the years his experimentation with voices hasgrown more and more innovative, culminating in 1990 with perhaps hisbest-known novel, Mr. Mani, which consists of five conversationsthat take place between 1848 and 1982--but the words of only one ofthe speakers are provided, leaving the reader to imagine the otherhalf of the dialogue.
The new novel offers a different innovation. The book'sstripped-down narrative is interrupted sporadically by passagesspoken by voices, always referring to themselves in the plural, whoserve as a sort of chorus. As the manager and the night shiftsupervisor conduct their tete-a-tete in the cafeteria, we get aglimpse of them from the perspective of the workers mopping up:"When the floor was spotless and dry and the chairs were loweredagain from the tables, and the violet light of a clearing sky shonethrough the window, we were shocked to see the older man bury hisface in his hands as if hiding something painful or shameful, as ifhe had finally understood why an empty cafeteria had been chosenfor his confession." When the manager appears at the home of thedead woman's landlord, the door is answered by his gaggle ofdaughters: "We almost fainted. A stranger was there, not even areligious Jew, a big strong man with short hair like our mother'swhen she takes off her wig before going to bed."
It is hardly surprising that an Israeli writer would be uniquelysensitive to the idea that every story must have at least twosides; and in Yehoshua's previous work the differing perspectiveshave served as a kind of check on each other, filling in missingdetails or correcting mistaken impressions. Here, though, theshadow narrators seem to have a different purpose. Appearingsporadically and with the illusion of spontaneity--two such passageswill come in quick succession, then thirty pages will go by beforewe see another--they remind us that no matter where we are or whatwe are doing, someone else is always watching: the bartender whoserves us our drinks, or the woman we pass on the street. Togetherthese voices have the effect of speaking for a collectiveconscience--and not just of Israel, since they continue throughoutthe human resources manager's journey, but of all humanity. ("Tellus, you hard people: After desecrating the Holy Land and turningmurder and destruction into a way of life, by what right do you nowtrample on our feelings?" ask the inhabitants of an apartmentbuilding where the manager and his entourage--which includes thejournalist whose story set all these events in motion, aphotographer, and the local consul--have come to pay a visit. "Is itbecause you and your enemies have learned to kill each other andyourselves with such crazy impunity ... that you think you canleave a coffin, with no explanation or permission, in the courtyardof an apartment building in someone else's country?")
In a collection of literary essays published in English severalyears ago under the title The Terrible Power of a Minor Guilt,Yehoshua lamented the disappearance of the moral perspective fromliterary criticism, and argued for its reinstatement as one of theessential criteria for evaluating works of literature. As if toillustrate this principle, A Woman in Jerusalem may be the moststrictly moral novel he has written. It is centered around one ofthe primary tenets common across the vast majority of humancultures--"Bury the dead," which is in fact one of the examplesthat Yehoshua gives in the introduction to his literary essays forhis definition of a universal morality. Its plot makes no sensefrom any other perspective. There is no logic to the manager'sobsession with this "engineer who had died as a cleaning woman insomeone else's war," no reason that he should choose to personallyaccompany her coffin on its arduous trek across the steppes. It issimply a question of doing the right thing.
Yehoshua has said that he intended the manager, an "alienatedbureaucrat," to gradually surmount his "indifference" in more waysthan one: "He takes moral responsibility for the neglect of thiswoman and falls in love with her even though he never met her."Yehoshua's fiction has long exploited the irrational and sometimesridiculous things that people--again, mostly men--do in the name oflove. In The Lover, the main character first sends away his wife'slover and then spends the remainder of the novel engaging in evermore desperate acts to find him again. But the action of thatnovel, unconventional though it may be, is justified by the veryhigh level of psychological realism that Yehoshua sustainsthroughout. Characters may behave in ways that are difficult tobelieve, but they always obey the essential laws of literaryrealism, which is the novel's gravitational force.
A Woman in Jerusalem does not always honor those laws; it does nothave the same grounding in reality. There are some sketches atrounding out the human resources manager: he is going through adivorce that has left him embittered and insensate, and much ismade of the fact that on their single meeting he had beenunaffected by the dead woman's beauty. "You live inside yourselflike a snail," his secretary tells him. But these gestures are notentirely successful. After all, how much can the reader sympathizewith a character who does not even have a name? And to say, asYehoshua does, that the manager actually "falls in love" with theunknown and unknowable dead woman runs counter to everything thatYehoshua's books have taught about love. Love can take placebetween unlikely people--an Israeli and an Arab, an older woman anda younger man, a middle-aged man and a teenager (these examples aredrawn from a single book!)--but it always has an element of thesensuous, the terrestrial. Love is not the abstract fantasies of aman who cannot remember having laid eyes upon a woman's face.
"The love of beauty must remain open-ended," the journalist tellsthe manager during a late-night philosophical discussion. "Itsextremes can drive a man to the most shameless acts." Yet the actin the name of love that we see in this novel--and we may indeedcall it love, in the sense of love for one's fellow human--is thevery opposite of shameless. It is precisely when the novel movesits furthest from realism that this part of the story reaches itsculmination. En route to the village that is their finaldestination, the group accompanying the woman's coffin decides tostop for a visit at an underground military base that was once anuclear installation and is now a tourist site. While they arethere, the manager, possessed by the lingering effects of a strangedream, wanders off to a peasant market and drinks a cup of a vilebrew. (The reader learns from the chorus of local observers thatthe woman selling it was not right in the head, but unfortunatelythe manager misunderstood their warnings.) He falls violently illwith food poisoning and spends the following day and night on ahospital ward in the depths of the bunker.
The symbolic connotations of the manager's descent underground andthe physical purging that takes place there are obvious; and heemerges reborn, ready to fulfill what remains of his mission. "I amnot a courier who comes and goes," he tells the amazed inhabitantsof the village that is the coffin's final destination. "I am ahuman resources manager whose duty it is to remain with you untilthe last clod of earth has fallen on this woman's grave. Only thenwill I return to my city, which exists for me as a bitter realityalone."
Even in his most explicitly psychological fictions, Yehoshua hasbeen happy to stretch the boundaries of realism in order to make apoint or to startle the reader. (Hence that swooning nun in TheLiberated Bride.) His exploitation of the twilit areas of the humanconsciousness has always challenged the reader's willingness tosuspend disbelief. But his sometimes wild inventiveness is atbottom an affirmation of realism. He is a realist who can bemagical, but he is not a magical realist. And a parable, which iswhat A Woman in Jerusalem is, need not appease our skepticism aboutevery particular detail in order to work its peculiar and powerfuleffect. Yehoshua's moral fable combines the amusements ofimagination with the responsibilities of conscience. If love hereturns out to be the ultimate moral expression, it is evidence thatthe sleep of reason does not produce only monsters.