Darkness Lit From Within: On A.B. Yehoshua
The protagonist of “A Long Hot Day” is a 42-year-old engineer who, due to a faulty diagnosis of cancer, has been returned against his will to Israel after nine happy months on a project in Africa. Waiting for reassignment, he is plunged into an abyss of aimlessness that puts him on a continuum with our depressed academics.
One of the first mornings home, his wife and daughter having gone off to work and school, the engineer awakens to an empty flat, brooding on the night before, when he and his wife had retired to their bedroom for the second time in nearly a year: “He put his arms about her. In spite of his abysmal tiredness he intended to be with her, to make love to her…. But she pushed him away lightly, kissed the top of his head, slipped out of her clothes, put on a nightdress, got into her bed. He tried to insist…. At last he let go. Anyway, there had been trouble even before his African journey…. He gave in. She fell asleep at once.” In Africa, he had “lived in solitude, conceived by him as freedom.” Now, back home, he awakens daily into a domesticity that spells desolation:
Naked he paces through the house, enters each room and closes shutters and windows against the heat…enters a sun-drenched kitchen and tumbles straight into the chaos left by his [teenage] daughter. The butter is melting on the table, the milk going sour in the heat, the door of the refrigerator isn’t shut properly, jam is dripping over a dry slice of bread, a piece of nibbled cheese is on top of a load of dirty dishes—it’s as though a band of hoodlums had had their breakfast here instead of one thin, straggly child…. He puts the kettle to boil, moves the entire pile of dirty dishes to the sink and starts chewing at the slice of bread left by her.
Slowly, the engineer drives himself to the edge of mental instability—he broods over his loveless marriage, starts napping in his wreck of a car, hoards the letters that a young soldier writes to his daughter—and all the while there is the “sun-charged morning” into which he must repeatedly awaken; “the sweltering air that is making the road wave and contort…the sun exploding silently, breaking up into a thousand sparks…. Splinters of light quiver between his feet, and over his head a canopy of coals.”
Hardly a page in these stories is free of heat—the sun and the heat; the glare and the heat; the unexpressed yearning and the heat; the sexual dysfunction and the heat. It is there in every story: pressing into the narrator, driving him to experience, in almost equal parts, the landscape and the people in it (the narrator himself, first and foremost) as surreal rather than immediate.
Inevitably, I found myself comparing Yehoshua’s Israeli heat with the heat of, say, Camus’s Algeria or Coetzee’s South Africa. Their heat, too, goes hand in hand with an emotional unreality that allows people to do unspeakable things to one another beneath a burning sun in the middle of nowhere. Yehoshua’s heat, however—unlike that of Camus or Coetzee—is neither sinister nor murderous; rather, it is anxious, depressed, exhausted. It’s the exhaustion that makes Yehoshua’s stories remarkable, even profound. The exhaustion runs so deep it feels as old as time itself; as though it has been there since the beginning of instinctual life; as though, knowing as we do in the womb that we are about to be born into loss and abandonment, we are exhausted in advance.
In every age—what with the undying barbarism of human history—it is given to a few places in the world to make incarnate such existential knowledge. In Israel, for obvious reasons, we have one of those places. Yehoshua’s stories remind us that Israeli literature rightly joins the literature of those other cultures that have earned the right to make of ordinary lives a metaphor for such soul-destroying weariness.
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It is common knowledge that Yehoshua is a man of the left who endorses a two-state solution to the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Yet to his followers abroad he seems more preoccupied with haranguing the Jews of the world who persist in living outside the state of Israel, as though it were they, not the political situation at home, who are making of life in the Middle East the hell that it is. In a voice laced through with contempt, he regularly thunders like a prophet of old that only Israelis are complete Jews. Other Jews are partial Jews—Jews who put on and take off their Jewishness as they would an article of clothing appropriate to the weather of the country in which they reside. Such Jews are worthy of the deepest scorn Yehoshua can summon.
In recent years, Yehoshua has become a writer of middle-class stories about aging and its anxieties that could be located anywhere in the Western world—his new novel, The Retrospective, about an aging movie director, could easily have been set in France—with the Israeli-ness of the characters existing simply as an identification tag. But for those who know his early work, it is painful to hear him speak of who is and who isn’t a Jew, because at times he can sound like a West Bank settler with a gun in his hand and murder in his heart, declaring the land of another his land. It’s the bully behind that sound—whether it comes from the left or the right—that makes one cringe. It seems then not to matter why one is bullying; it matters only that another is being bullied. In the court of humanity, the violence one human being does another is a nonnegotiable crime. Very nearly, in this court, there is no such thing as a just war.
At the end of last summer, for the first time in thirty years, I spent a week in Israel. The buses were no longer tin cans, no one barked at me in the shops or tried to get ahead of me in line, and the youth culture of Tel Aviv—beautiful young people dressed in Alphabet City black, everywhere, in bars, restaurants, cafés—was striking. Nonetheless, old friends were shocked to learn that I was still neither married nor a mother, and insinuating inflections marked most encounters in a way that still got on my nerves. (Question: “Are you enjoying that book?” Response: “And why shouldn’t I be enjoying this book?”) What was most startling, however, was the frenzy of building that seemed to be going on everywhere at the same time. Maybe it was the killing heat—it was, after all, the end of summer—but everyone and everything, the very air itself, seemed tired: bone tired, bitter tired, millennial tired; tired of the weariness and the canopy of coals, the escalating isolation and the petrifying last stand. It flashed through my mind: perhaps the Jews—because love, of love they have despaired—really are tired of being Jews.
Laura Brahm reviewed Jews and Words, by Israeli novelist Amos Oz and his daughter, historian Fania Oz-Salzberger, in the February 25, 2013, edition of The Nation.