Scenes From a Marriage
In Yehoshua's first two novels, the decay of family relations mirrors a growing despondency among the nation as a whole; what he calls the "gradual crumbling of the center of national values and cultural experience," in the wake of the occupation, the 1973 military debacle and the decline of the Labor establishment, finds its echo in his use of multiple monologues. The coarsening of Israeli society is exemplified by Yehuda's brash son-in-law Kedmi, whose monologue is a spleen-filled rant of Archie Bunkerish hate, full of invective for Sephardic Jews and Arabs--"darkies," he calls them--and anyone who gets in his way: "honk honk your head off you fucking Volvo you just wait till my son crosses the street you bitch." "This whole country," the married male lover of Yehuda's son Tsvi laments, "is too much for me."
While Yehuda seeks liberation from his past--embodied in the scar Naomi has left on his chest, which he eagerly displays to anyone who will look--his son Asa, another historian, looks there in desperation for answers to the present:
To take some distant period and discuss it in trivial terms--to find a neglected document or manuscript that has yet to be written about and blow up its significance--to burrow through old newspapers in search of unknown facts about some second-rate statesman who lived in a forgotten age--let that be for the rest of them. But I would find the cryptograph, the secret code.... Not to prevent [mistakes] but to inoculate against them.... To isolate the meaning, the secret code of the past, and distill from it a serum that can be injected into human beings to prepare them for the coming catastrophe.
In all of Yehoshua's fiction, the past is an oppressive weight, and the search, in the end, consumes the putative searchers, who melt down under the impossible pressure. Adam, in The Lover, is drawn inexorably to a friend of his 14-year-old daughter, forcing himself on her; Asa, the historian, finds himself humiliated by a cheap prostitute in an abandoned shop adjacent to a seedy bus station; and Yehuda, come to Israel to set himself free, meets his death in a bizarre accident at his wife's mental hospital, after he has returned in secret to steal from her the deed to their home, which he signed away to obtain his divorce.
Even those who are hardly conscious of the past--like Gavriel Mani, a middle-aged Jerusalem judge and one of six generations of Manis in Mr. Mani, Yehoshua's sprawling fourth novel--find themselves captive to it. It is the pressure of the past that leads Gavriel to contemplate suicide on a nightly basis in 1982, following the death of his mother: "He couldn't control this impulse he had to do away with himself every evening, because he had no reason for doing it...he only thought that he did, and even that thought wasn't his own but came from someone or somewhere else."
But that past is Yehoshua's concern. In Mr. Mani, a constructivist epic in reverse, he himself takes up the feverish search through history, ranging backward in time over a century and a half by way of five long conversations--each about a different Mr. Mani--in present-day Israel, 1944 Crete, 1918 Jerusalem, 1899 Poland, and 1848 Athens. Tracing the long arc of the Mani clan through murder, suicide, incest, banishment and much else besides, Yehoshua looks backward to explore the unconscious baggage the past stows with the present, charting the echoes that pass from father to son to grandson across the generations, searching through the destructive tendencies of Manis past to find the hidden source of Gavriel's urge for self-immolation. Setting the conversations at five crossroads in Jewish history--the revolutions of 1848, the Third Zionist Congress, the Balfour Declaration, the Holocaust, the Lebanon War--he takes up the mission Asa sets out in A Late Divorce: to uncover the secret code of the past, to seek lessons from what he calls the "failure of Jewish history." "I wanted to understand two things," Yehoshua says, "what are the conflicts that threaten to destroy us and whether there is a way out.... To do psychoanalysis on a national level, and to try to see why we are in such a confusion now by understanding some of the elements of the past."
For Yehoshua, the failure of Jewish history--"I see the Holocaust as mainly our failure," he says--can be traced to a defect in the Jewish conception of identity, that is, the "partial identity" of Jews in the diaspora, awkwardly poised between nationhood and religion. This is the history Mr. Mani explores, the permutations of Jewish identity as the Manis pass into and out of Jerusalem. From Crete in 1944, a young German paratrooper tells of Efrayim Mani, who has "canceled" his Jewish identity. In Athens in 1848, Avraham Mani describes the strange ideas of his deceased son Yosef, intoxicated with the notion that the Arab residents of Palestine are Jews who have forgotten their Jewishness. In Jerusalem, 1918, a British military lawyer relates the tale of Joseph Mani, who traveled to local Arab villages, where, brandishing a copy of the newly signed Balfour Declaration, he admonished the locals, in Arabic, "Awake, before it is too late and the world is changed beyond recognition! Get ye an identity, and be quick!"