The Financial Times
The Genesis of Grief

A Faulknerian novel addresses Jewish identity, loss and exile.


Immersed in an airport paperback on a flight from Israel to East Africa, Daniela, a character in AB Yehoshua's Friendly Fire , thinks to herself, "The author doesn't seem to understand that at the heart of family animosities there is a warm intimacy that does not exist among warring strangers." It's Yehoshua's little joke with his readers but also the sort of throwaway observation that illuminates his newest work. Yehoshua has long been praised for his Faulknerian novels, and though the two rather unexceptional middle-class Israeli families in Friendly Fire lack the gothic appurtenances of the Snopeses and Compsons, his story is not short on sound and fury.

The sound is supplied by an elevator shaft in a Tel Aviv building that is emitting ghostly wailing noises when the wind whips up, a conundrum for Daniela's husband Ya'ari, an engineer, to solve. The fury comes from Yirmiyahu, the widower of Daniela's late sister, who withdraws to rural Tanzania in angry self-imposed exile from his Israeli and Jewish identities. His attempt to "disattach" himself from the past follows his wracked bereavement over the death of his son, a friendly-fire casualty in the West Bank.

One story is almost banal, the other tragic - yet the two strands wrap around each other like a double helix. Each chapter comprises a day in Ya'ari and Daniela's week apart, told in alternating narratives after the two separate at Tel Aviv airport. As they depart, Ya'ari warns his wife not to waver from her scheduled itinerary ("it's Africa, Daniela, not Europe. Nothing is solid or clear-cut there"). In Tanzania she finds sickly spirits galore - spectres of her dead sister, the unvanquished memory of her nephew. Even the outline of the farmhouse occupied by Yirmiyahu is compared to a "ghost of the colonial past".

While Daniela ponders the behaviour of her brother-in-law, who tosses her gift of menorah candles in a fire, Ya'ari scuttles around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem fulfilling familial duties. His son has been detained by military police for shirking his responsibilities as a reservist. His wailing-elevator problem worsens as the tenants threaten a lawsuit.

The back-and-forth of Yehushoa's two-punch narrative only intensifies his themes of exile, grief and the burden of tradition. In Africa, an archaeologist shows Daniela a bone fragment and gives her a lesson in evolution. "What they handed down continued under its own power, to develop or alter from transmission to transmission, now getting stronger and now weaker, sometimes clear and sometimes blurred." The extinct animals he identifies were our "relatives who strayed or were expelled from the main road and got stuck in dead-end streets".

Yirmiyahu's anger is predicated on the painfully binding consequences of inheritance. He rants to Daniela that "justice is tied to loyalty to God", whose rage is like that of a "crazed husband". Yehoshua's treatment of identity, Judaism and destiny is itself gracefully subdued. Taking his grandson Nadi to visit his detained reservist father, Ya'ari comically dangles the boy upside-down into the lid of a tank captured during the Seven Days war and in a "reverse childbirth motion lowers his big head into the dark hole".

Whatever may come after these strange birth pangs is leavened in Yehoshua's playful telling: when the boy later announces, "Grandpa put me in a tank," his father gushes, "Well done, Nadi. See what a great grandpa I gave birth to?"

Eric Banks
© The Financial Times 2008