The Jewish Quarterly
Who is responsible for the awful wailing that fills the new Tel-Aviv buildings on windy days? Amotz Ya’ari, whose construction firm designed Pinsker Tower, is inundated with complaints from tenants driven crazy by the wailing sounds from the elevators in the building. His wife Daniella, meanwhile, is in Tanzania visiting her bereaved brother-in-law, Yirmiyahu, one year after the death of her sister, Shuli. The desire that drives Daniella begins in her wish to mourn her sister fully, in the company of a brother-in-law that has called her ‘Little Sister’ for close to fifty years. Soon after she arrives in Tanzania, it becomes clear that the anguish over an earlier death informs and confuses the process of mourning Shuli; her nephew, Eyali, the son of Yirmi and Shuli, was killed by friendly fire six years earlier. Yirmi’s reaction to his son’s death has been to detach himself from every speck of collective identity, both Jewish and Israeli.
As formally inventive as ever, Yehoshua builds this duet of a novel from numerous brief scenes, ranging in length from less than a page to eight or nine alternating between Amotz’s week in Israel and Daniella’s week in Africa.
The Tel-Aviv story illuminates the primary African narrative much the way that the fifteen choric interludes of A Woman in Jerusalem illuminate the quest of the human resources man in Yehoshua’s last novel. However, there is a danger in this novel that the relative lightness of Amotz’s elevator sub-plot, as contrasted with the pain and complexity of the African story, may offer connections that are merely playful rather than illuminating. In Tel-Aviv the elevators wail, but the wailing in Tanzania is a human wail of grief. Amotz is a foil to Yirmi’s deracinated isolation. He inhabits living networks of family, friends, colleagues and community that define him as an Israeli and a Jew, a man with moral convictions who loves with control.
The question of fulfilled and unfulfilled desire gains momentum throughout the novel. Ultimately it dominates Yirmi’s final encounter with the woman who reveals uncomfortable truths about his son’s death, not to mention the consequences of this death on his relationship with Shuli. Finally, it plays a central role in the act of shocking bravura and extraordinary bravery on the part of Daniella that forms the climax of the novel.
Though Yehoshua probes the unconscious desires and needs of his characters with true acuity, it would be a mistake to read him as a primarily psychological novelist. In his book of literary criticism, The Enormous Power of a Minor Guilt, he explores the techniques by which the great novelists manipulate readers. In particular, the reader’s response to instances in which any moral clarity is muddied by probing psychological issues. This, to him, is the great challenge of writing fiction in a psychological age, let alone a post-modern one, in which the very attempt to make moral distinctions smacks of old-fashioned illusion. In Yehoshua’s novels, psychology is always in the service of morality, marked here by the recurring concern in both stories with guilt and blame. Variations on the Hebrew words for guilt, ‘ashem, ‘asham, ‘ashma, recur frequently. Such pointed words float in a slurry of other repeated words, the majority in Daniella’s sections — adjectives like ‘nice’, ‘pleasant’ and ‘sweet’. In the Tel-Aviv story the question is: who is responsible for the wailing within the new buildings? Is it the elevator designer, the elevator manufacturer, or the construction company? The answer, when it finally comes, is clear-cut and decisive. This is anything but the case in the final reaches of the other plot, which enters deeply into unchartered challenges that involve a husband’s final responsibilities to the wife he loves under circumstances of enormous emotional upheaval.
© The Jewish Quarterly