Dark continent, dark prophecies
In a candid drama riddled with larger social significance, A.B. Yehoshua moves back and forth between Israel and Tanzania, exploring the power of personal grief and bitterness.
It is apparent, even to audiences limited to English, that there has been an explosion of creativity in Israeli fiction over the past quarter century. Readers of novels and short stories translated from Hebrew are treated about once a month (or so it seems ) to a “new” writer, or an older one who has developed in a new way. Influenced by increasing mobility and the deepening of political, social, ethnic and religious cleavages in the six decades since independence, Israeli fiction, at least since the 1990s, no longer reflects one homogeneous socialist, pioneering, secular and male reality.
This “pluralism” is found, however, not only in the work of relatively younger writers such as David Grossman, Orly Castel-Bloom, Etgar Keret or Zeruya Shalev, but also in the fiction of older, ever-evolving writers like A.B. Yehoshua.
In “A Late Divorce” (1984, in English ), “Five Seasons” (1989 ), “A Liberated Bride” (2004 ), and “A Woman in Jerusalem” (2007 ), among other works, Yehoshua has moved away from Israel’s most cherished national narratives, the mythology of Zionism’s collective and patriotic spirit, and returned to personal and family relationships. Even in “Mr. Mani” (1992 ), a strange and radically constructed set of tales, where the political and historical are front and center, Yehoshua manages, through five one-sided “conversations,” which begin in the 1980s and go back in time to the 18th century, to demonstrate the disjointedness of Jewish history and the struggles and pains of constructing one’s identity in a hostile world. And he points us in the direction of the personal and psychological by reflecting on how the internalization of some of the mishegas of Jewish history affects individual history, and how, by implication, all of that is carried over into contemporary Israel.
None of Yehoshua’s books, no matter how personal, is without political, historical and religious importance. “Friendly Fire” is no exception. Using chapters that move back and forth, over the course of a week, between Israel and Tanzania, Yehoshua explores the power of personal grief and bitterness, in a candid drama riddled with larger social significance.
Amotz Ya’ari, a 60 year-old design engineer, with an inclination to be controlling (and “occasionally oppressive” ) in his love, is separated for the first seven days of Hanukkah from his somewhat “dreamy and scattered” wife, Daniela. She has flown alone to East Africa to visit with her brother- in-law Yirmiyahu, and to mourn for, or more precisely, to come to terms with, the death (apparently from “heartbreak” ) of her sister Shuli.
It soon becomes apparent that it is another death - that of Eyal, the son of Shuli and Yirmi - that preoccupies this family and is at the heart of the novel. An Israeli soldier killed, while his parents were living and working in Africa, by “friendly fire,” six or seven years before the beginning of Yehoshua’s story, Eyali becomes known to us mostly through an act of extraordinary decency he performed on duty - which led to his accidental death at the hands of his comrades- in-arms. In returning to Tanzania with Yirmi after the funeral and several weeks of mourning, Shuli had hoped that Africa’s “soul” would dampen her pain over the loss of her soldier-son, but whatever comfort it provided her, it was not enough, apparently, to leave her with much will to live. On the other hand, Yirmi, once in the diplomatic corps in Kenya, and now working on a dig with a team of Tanzanian archaeologists, “seeking the primal ape who never anticipated that Jews, too, would spring from his loins,” returned to Africa, and remains there, he says, because he is determined to cut himself off from “the whole messy stew - my people, Jews in general, Israelis in particular.”
Indeed, upon being presented by his visiting sister-in-law with batches of Hebrew newspapers she has schlepped from Ben-Gurion Airport, and a box of candles for a Hanukkah menorah, Yirmi almost immediately dispatches the whole lot to the furnace. Later in the novel, he is about to do the same with a Bible. “Why not burn it?” Why should the “source of all troubles” be more immune than the newspapers? “This book is where all the confusion and curses begin. This especially must be destroyed.”
Yirmi is most upset with the book that bears his own name - Jeremiah. The old prophet, Yirmi believes (and demonstrates by citing chapter and verse ), predicted pervasive, persistent gloom and doom for the ancient Hebrews, and did so with a kind of arrogant glee and impish delight. Daniela is astonished at the depth of Yirmi’s anger and at his obvious and admittedly obsessive need to discover, while he was still in Israel, all of the details surrounding the death of his son. The words “friendly fire,” first spoken to him by his brother-in-law Amotz, and meant as a balm, continue to stick like a poisoned lance in Yirmi’s heart, even after he has given up his search for the “full truth.”
Back In Tel Aviv, as Amotz worries (overly, and yet with reason ) about his less than practical wife in Africa (who on departing spoke almost offhandedly about her desire for a love with less control and more “real desire” ), he is confronted with anynumber of quotidian problems. His son Moran ends up in the brig for going AWOL from reserve duty, something he has done more than once before with impunity; his daughter-in-law, Efrat (Moran’s wife ), who is cockily confident that the world will always pay homage to her beauty, seems to make light of her obligations - there aretwo young (seemingly troubled ) children, who are often left to babysitters, including, on the spur of the moment, Amotz, and there is the hint (but only that ) of sexual disloyalty on Efrati’s part.
And then there are the elevators designed by Amotz’s company - one set of which, to the distress of the tenants in a Tel Aviv high rise, attract loudly roaring winds as the cars rise in their shafts, and another of which, a much smaller private affair, in a different building, designed by Amotz’s elderly father for a former lover, is dysfunctional and requires attention - as does the old man.
Can the elevators be fixed? And who is responsible for their malfunction? No doubt Yehoshua means for these elevators to stand in as signifiers representing the problems of the protagonists, all of whom are caught in their own small and not so small states of despair. But, in the elevator problem writ large, Israel, too, can be seen: a marvel of achievement with gaping holes (literally ) - defects, the responsibility for which everyone wants to escape. In the battle over whether the designer, elevator manufacturer, or high-rise builder is at fault for the problems, one can hear echoes of Ariel Sharon’s speech some years ago, reprimanding Israelis for the declining quality of their society and culture, in which there was a tendency to cut corners, to get ahead or stay ahead at all costs, and to shift blame. “Everyone in this country has someone he can threaten,” says one of the participants in the elevator struggle. “No one has immunity.”
Part of Yehoshua’s genius lies in his ability to weave broader and narrower swatches of a seemingly straightforward story into an almost seamless tapestry filled with weighty symbolism, yet enriched with personal pursuits and colorful threads of sexual tension.
Amotz Ya’ari, still with a very active libido, and who, according to Daniela, “always wants it,” can be titillated by a glimpse of a small tattoo on his daughter-in-law’s shapely breast as she bends to tuck in a toddler. Nothing transpires except arousal of the sexual imagination (further fired up by the inadvertent discovery of a porno tape in Efrati’s home ) of a 60-year-old, who is a deeply moral man with “love and loyalty stamped in his soul.” Like Efrati, Daniela, too, is very selfconscious about her own more off-beat attractiveness, and flying toward her stopover in Nairobi, she continues to speak with a flirtatious older Englishman despite “knowing” that he will be in love with her by flight’s end. And once she arrives in Tanzania, the angry encounters between Daniela and Yirmi, who was deprived of Shuli’s embrace after the death of their son, are often overlain with palpable sensuality and even end with a not-so-stolen moment of blissful intimacy.
Yirmi and Shuli had been able, sometimes, even through a laugh, to reconnect with their dead son. But not, Yehoshua writes, “during sex. Here exist only two, a man and a woman, and their son, dead or alive, has no place in their bed ... Because if the dead son slipped into the shadow of a passing thought, or became embodied in a bare leg or the movement of a hand, the sex would die down at once, or else be putrid. And perhaps to preserve Eyali, from the day of the funeral to the day she died, [Shuli] resolutely put an end to her sexuality, and thereby [Yirmi’s] as well, for how could he impose himself on her when he knew that at any moment she might open the door of her mind and say, Come, my son, come back and I will grieve you again. Could he have said, in the middle of lovemaking, Just a minute, son, stop, wait a bit, you arrived too soon. Just like that day at dawn, this, too, is a battleground, and if you take one more step into the soul of the naked woman I am holding in my arms I’ll spray you with friendly fire...” Passages like this, dreadful yet lyrical, punctuate the novel and raise fundamental questions about selfhood, identity and belonging.
In Yehoshua’s romanticized Africa, with its ever-shifting sky, glorious sunsets, purple hills, and warm, nurturing populace, sits Yirmi, “where his very being projects the authority of the white man, bald and old against the abundant vitality” of the “dark continent.” He interacts with Kenyans, Tanzanians and uprooted Sudanese, in particular his nurse-assistant, Sijjin Kuang (who had witnessed the massacre of her entire family in Sudan ).
In Yehoshua’s Israel, too, we see complexity and heterogeneity. There are meaningful, if only fleeting, appearances of Chinese and African construction workers, a Jewish-Egyptian ambulance driver, Indians in the helping professions, and most visibly in “Friendly Fire,” Filipinos in domestic service. There is only the smallest hint, however, that such diversity (including voluntarily segregated Russians, and not so voluntarily isolated Ethiopians ) is problematic. And of course there are Arabs, including one pregnant woman in Tul Karm, where Eyali was killed, who raises very directly the questions of who belongs where and what belongs to whom. She is filled with dignity and vitality, but also anger, and, significantly, threat.
Bane of fame
Beginning with “The Lover” (1977 ), his very first novel, Yehoshua has brought Arab characters with full-blown humanity to his fiction, and this moral quality is reflected as well in his left-secular politics. Sometimes in this regard he is unjustly accused by his countrymen of naivete. Israelis, he complained once to an interviewer, often ask him, “How could you say what you say [about the Arabs], how could you be so stupid?” It might seem, from what he told one interviewer, that Yehoshua envies the relative anonymity Saul Bellow could experience even sitting in a restaurant (with Yehoshua ) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just after winning the Nobel Prize. “I was astonished,” Yehoshua said, “thatnobody noticed him. Here everyone ... quarrel[s] with me, but with a lot of kindness..” His smile while saying this, and his general performancein public, however, reveal Yehoshua’s love of the opportunity his celebrity gives him to speak out on issues in which he takes great interest.
In “Friendly Fire,” too, there are tensions and quarrels, but they often end, if not with gemutlikhkayt, at least in quiet understanding, as in the elevator episode. Daniela, also, reflecting a larger arena of shared values, forces herself to finish reading a novel she does not like, mainly because the “author doesn’t seem to understandthat at the heart of family animositiesthere is a warm intimacy that does notexist among strangers.”
Yirmi, bereft of wife and son, is apparently not destined to return to this complex land of Israel, where people have been fed on Jeremiah and his glum cohort, and are “all about the next disaster that will come ... maybe even yearning for it.” But Daniela will go home. She rereads the prophet Jeremiah in an English bible she gets at the hotel. “You see things in the English that you can’t in Hebrew,” Daniela says, and she decides (we surmise ) that Yirmi may be right in thinking Jeremiah a “professional grouch,” tiresome, perhaps even (like Israel itself ) irritatingly perverse.
Nonetheless, she will come back to TelAviv, on the very last night of Hanukkah, to sing with her husband “Ma’oz Tsur,” in what she pointedly calls “a duet,” and to seek with Amotz a love marked by “real desire,” a “stronghold of rock.”