AVRAHAM YEHOSHUA, known as “Bulli”, was 50 pages into a new novel, about an unclaimed corpse in a Jerusalem morgue, when a close friend, a peace activist named Dafna, was killed by the suicide-bomb that was detonated in a crowded cafeteria at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in July 2002. Fourteen months later, Mr Yehoshua spoke at the funeral of two Arab waiters he had got to know well who were among 19 people killed by a lunchtime bomber at Maxim, a seashore restaurant in Haifa, his home town.
The novel Mr Yehoshua was writing, “A Woman in Jerusalem”, was virtually complete by the time the second bombing took place. The book is dedicated to Dafna, which is not surprising, for by then it had become Mr Yehoshua's cri de coeur: war kills people, but even the living begin to die when they lose their humanity.
Mr Yehoshua, who with Amos Oz is one of Israel's two master novelists, has long been described as the Hebrew Faulkner. Indeed, the plot of his eighth novel uses a bold and often funny improvisation on William Faulkner's 1930 classic, “As I Lay Dying”, to explore guilt, penance and public relations in Israel's underbelly.
The hero is the (unnamed) human-resources manager of a major Jerusalem company, a bakery that has flourished by victualling the Israeli army and trucking extra supplies of bread to the West Bank when times are so hard that Palestinians can afford little else and their local bakeries have been closed on suspicion of being a security risk.
When the company's 87-year-old proprietor learns that a muckraking local weekly is about to run a scathing article about a company employee, a beautiful Russian with a long swan-like neck and delicate Tartar eyes, who was killed by a suicide-bomber and whose body remains unclaimed, he directs the human-resources manager to find out what happened and to make amends, no matter what the cost. And so begins a tragi-comic saga, a sequence of ludicrous if well-meant mishaps, as the manager mounts an improbable expedition to return the beautiful Yulia Ragayev's body to her native Soviet village.
In a subtle send-up of how very odd human beings can be, Mr Yehoshua evokes thoughts of fate, death and how people come to feel that they belong. Now almost 70, the outspoken Jerusalem-born Sephardic academic has in turn written drama, short stories and essays, as well as fiction, all exploring the spirit of Israel and what it means to be Jewish. Mr Yehoshua has never been an easy read, yet his work invites mulling over even if it resists easy definitions.
What engages Mr Yehoshua most here is the question of humanity. “You still don't realise how upsetting it is to be called inhuman. What is left to us if we lose our humanity?” Yet his evocation of what it means to be human is drawn in the subtlest strokes: an Arab cafeteria worker turns down a lift home at the end of a long night shift, preferring “to get a good night's sleep there without having to worry about the three humiliating checkpoints he had to pass through on the way back from his village every day”; the human-resources manager who has gone back to living with his mother after his divorce has a pathological aversion to double beds; forever jostled by human emotions, he is envious of the bakery workers for having to deal only with dough and machinery.
How can a nation that is so heavily militarised stop itself from becoming coarsened by violence? How can Israel keep its humanist ideals? Beneath the surface there are signs that Mr Yehoshua is deeply worried about Israel's moral future: not just in the face of war against Hizbullah, for example, but in its very own soul. Mr Yehoshua's warmest character is the old bakery owner, a man who ignores the need to sleep—he is aware enough to know there will be plenty of time to sleep once he is gone—yet who frets about doing the right thing before he dies. “I don't want to apologise,” he says when he realises the calamity of having one of his employees go missing in a morgue. “I want to do penance.”
Mr Yehoshua's “A Woman in Jerusalem” is a sad, warm, funny book about Israel and being Jewish, and one that has deep lessons to impart—for other people as well as his own.
© 2006 The Economist