Darkness Lit From Within: On A.B. Yehoshua
The composite Yehoshua character who haunts my imagination is a failing academic who’s balding, wears glasses, can’t complete his dissertation, hasn’t slept with a woman in five years, and is walking at an angle down a Jerusalem street beneath a burning sun whose heat and dazzle double the surrounding silence—a silence that only a place this hot, this remote, could generate; a silence that makes palpable the silence within.
A version of this character is the protagonist of at least two of Yehoshua’s most powerful stories—“Three Days and a Child” and “Facing the Forests”—and his essence informs the main character of another important story, “A Long Hot Day, His Despair, His Wife and His Daughter.” In each case, the narrator is a man so ill at ease inside his own skin that when the mundane circumstances of his life threaten to turn hallucinatory, we’re right there with him because Yehoshua has put us deeply inside that unease—which, as it turns out, is not the situation but the story itself.
In “Three Days and a Child,” the narrator is a high school math teacher who lives alone in Jerusalem, sleeps with a woman he does not love, has been working for years on a hopeless dissertation, and now, in the last days of the summer vacation, receives a letter from a woman he once loved passionately (although she’d hardly given him the time of day), asking him to take care of her small son while she and her husband study for university entrance exams. This woman has, for years, been the focus of the narrator’s extended fantasies of erotic humiliation, and while he now meekly agrees to do as he’s asked, it is with a mixture of negative emotions, all the greater for being stifled, that he opens the door to receive the child. What follows is an account of the three days with the little boy—“end of summer, hot desert winds blowing over the land”—wherein the narrator’s spirits repeatedly rise, fall, flicker, go dead, come back to life, now flaring with bitter nostalgia, now falling back into the inertia that is his daily companion.
The narrator and the child go out wandering “about a Jerusalem stewing in its silence.” At the zoo, he sits on a bench and dozes off. When he awakens, the little boy is not there. He searches for the child with his eyes and spots him walking behind three older children along the top of a slanting wall. He watches with apparent indifference, thinking idly, “One incautious movement and he’ll be lying on the ground with a broken neck.” Not only did the narrator not worry: “On the contrary, I was excited!”
Very quickly, of course, he is rescuing the child, nursing him tenderly through a high fever, and suddenly feeling more alone than he did before the boy came: “Now my loneliness was undoubtedly greater than his.” He recognizes the forlornness of the child, but only his own can hold his attention.
He thinks with despair of the woman with whom he sleeps: “We may chance to meet in a crowded Jerusalem street…only last night we lay locked and now, as if by agreement, we ignore each other…so great is the pity we sometimes bear each other.”
He thinks of all the times he has returned to the classroom where “a few moments after I entered the room the sun, too, would enter through the window. The light would glare in my eyes. It was pure torment.”
When the narrator daydreams a phone call to the parents to tell them that he’s at the hospital and the boy has died, we are brought to the heart of the matter. In his fantasy he sees:
The bursting into the hospital, assailing the nurses, the doctors.
The meeting face to face.
Her wonderful, crushed beauty.
They at my feet, I at theirs. Clinging to each other.
The wonder of their not letting me go now…. They would cleave to me then, surround me, as though their child were in me, of me.
Would take me for their son.
Because love—of love I have despaired.
The protagonist of “Facing the Forests” could easily be the math teacher of “Three Days and a Child” a few years down the road. Consider the opening paragraph of the story:
Another winter lost in fog. As usual, he did nothing; postponed examinations, left papers unwritten. He had completed all his courses long ago, attended all the lectures [and the rest of the task had been] left in his own limp hands. But words weary him; his own, let alone the words of others. He drifts from one rented room to another, rootless, jobless. But for an occasional job tutoring backward children he would starve to death. Here he is approaching thirty and a bald spot crowns his wilting head. His defective eyesight blurs many things. His dreams at night are dull. They are uneventful…. At student revels he is already looked at with faint ridicule.
This character becomes a fire watcher in a forest some hours south of Jerusalem in the deluded hope that here, in total solitude, he will complete his graduate work. The only other people at the fire station are an Arab caretaker and his little girl. The Arab cannot speak; his tongue has been cut out—“By one of them or one of us?” our narrator wonders errantly—but he is there to serve the fire watcher, who soon begins to experience the Arab as a creeping threat. Needless to say, the narrator’s books are hardly cracked, nothing academic gets done, and when it turns out that the forest had grown over an Arab village that was destroyed years before—the caretaker and his child are the only survivors—the narrator begins to think that the Arab is going to set fire to the forest. Apprehension gives way to obsession, obsession to hallucination. And then, sure enough, there’s a conflagration. When he returns to Jerusalem six months after he left it, his time away is spoken of as just one more episode of work avoidance on the part of our aging student. “His waggish friends meet him, slap him on the back, and with ugly grins say, ‘We hear your forest burned down!’” while “his real friends have given him up in despair.” No one seems to guess that this will have been his last attempt to achieve an inner life.
* * *