Times Literary Supplement
Over Chanukah


Daniela is travelling alone to Tanzania to see her brother-in-law Jeremy, seeking closure after her beloved sister's death in Africa. Her husband, Amotz, meanwhile, has stayed behind in Tel Aviv to deal with two mysteriously malfunctioning elevators, the products of the engineering firm set up by his father, who is still alive but in the advanced stages of Parkinson's disease. Amotz is now running the business with his son Moran.

A. B. Yehohshua's latest novel Friendly Fire, a multi-generational family saga packed into eight days and nights, takes place over Chanukah, the week-long Jewish festival of lights. Like his previous novels, Friendly Fire is carefully and self-conciously structured, each short chapter moving back and forth between Israel and Africa. Each day of Chanukah is marked, in Israel, with the lighting of an additional candle in the chanukiah, the traditional nine-branched candelstick, as is each section of the novel. In an obscure corner of Tanzania, at the site of an archaeological survey where Jeremy has taken a job after ending his service as an Israeli diplomat in Dar es Salaam, Chanukah goes uncelebrated; the candles Daniela brought over have been thrown unceremoniously into the furnace, along with a bag full of Israeli newspapers. Jeremy has anglicized his name and refuses to return to Israel, preferring the arid plains of Tanzania, a place where there are "no ancient gaves... no testimonies about pogroms and the Holocaust. [Where] they don't fuss about assimilation or extinction, self-hatred or pride". To Daniela's astonishment he is not mourning for his wife Shuli; their relationship had withered after the death of their son Eyal in a "friendly fire" incident on the West Bank.

Jeremy is still wounded and raging after a visit to Israel to find the spot where his son was killed. When he does discover the sequence of events that lde to Eyal's death - the soldier has decended from a Tulkarm rooftop earlier than expected in order to empty a bucket of urine so that he could leave it clean for his unwilling Palestinian "hosts", a futile act of decency which led to his being shot by a fellow Israeli soldier who mistook him for a terrorist - he finds no release from the rage that consumes him. His humiliation and anger at the pointlessness of his son's death provoke him to reject every last bit of the society that brought it about.

Daniela, a mildy manipulative, strangely unsympathetic woman, who somehow manages always to get what she wants, even when she doesn't quite know what it is, is horrified by what she sees during her brief visit to Jeremy, even as she finds a way to bury her own grief. She insists on visiting every stop on her sister's final journey towards death, tracing a kind of Via Dolorosa from the stall where Shuli collapsed in the market to the hospital bed where she finally passed away. That is not enough, however. Just before she returns to Israel, this gentle, self-centred woman inflicts a terrible humiliation on her brother-in-law as a kind of revenge on him for not having loved her sister enough. She seems to believe that had Shuli been loved as Daniela is, she would still be alive today, instead of having been consumed in solitude by her grief for Eyal.

Amotz, meanwhile, has undergone a kind of liberation in his wife's absence. Hitherto a shadowy figure in his grandchildren's lives, he becomes their babysitter, when Moran is arrested for attempting to avoid military reserve duty. His beautiful but flighty daughter-in-law, Efrat, bestows her limip gratitude on him for enabling her to go out and enjoy herself in her husband's absence. The folloing morning he takes the whole family up to the army base to visit the renegade soldier, bfore whisking them all off to Jerusalem to visit his daughter and his father's former lover, whose private elevator has broken down. It sounds complcated but it all makes sense in Stuart Schoffman's colloquial translation.

The mystery at the heart of Friendly Fire, apart from the sordid details of Eyal's pointless death, is the source of a wailing noise coming from another elevator in a tower block in the heart of Tel Aviv. At the novel's quiet climax, the reason is uncovere, a horrifying accident is prevented and the engineer's honour is restored. It is a strangely sweet and satisfying ending for a novel that moves at an almost frantic pace between veldt, and desert, Africa, Israel and the West Bank, encompassingn notions of identity and victimhood and the quiet lull of discord between a happily married husband and wife from Tel Aviv.

Natasha Lehrer
© TLS 2008