Scenes From a Marriage
The long journey of the Manis marks Yehoshua's first sustained engagement with his own Sephardic roots, a development he ties to the death, in 1982, of his own father, an Orientalist and historian of Sephardic culture in Jerusalem. While the 1970s saw an attempt by militant Sephardic activists and intellectuals to articulate a Sephardic identity that had been deliberately repressed in the compulsive assimilation of Arab Jews who arrived in Ashkenazi-dominated Israel in the 1950s and '60s, Yehoshua vehemently resisted any Sephardic affiliation. His own Israeli identity was settled long beforehand, and the immigration, he attests, only sharpened his identification with the majority. "I fit in to Israel," he says, "like a French peasant to France."
Yehoshua's contempt for the diaspora is present in nearly all his novels, and it is a frequent subject in his nonfiction as well; he has called it "a disease" and "immoral," a "neurotic solution." While The Lover and A Late Divorce are set in motion by the return of a meddling diasporite, in The Liberated Bride Yehoshua gives us a lively caricature of Rivlin's sister-in-law Ofra and her husband Yo'el, who breeze through the country for a few days once or twice a year, all the while piously declaring their love for the homeland. "I'll still be Israeli," Yo'el solemnly vows, to Yehoshua's clear disgust, "even when there's no more Israel."
The question of Israel's future--the shape of the state and identity of its citizens--has always haunted Yehoshua's work, and it looms especially large in The Liberated Bride. Identity, with which he is so evidently concerned, finds itself in Israel at the mercy of geography, and the question of where to draw the lines, or to build the walls, is at root one of demography rather than territory: who can remain inside and who will be outside. Borders and boundaries--and their violation--structure the narrative of The Liberated Bride: Ofer's eagerness to penetrate the inner circle of the hotel, which leads him to discover the incestuous relationship of his father- and sister-in-law, is the original sin that sets the book in motion. Rivlin's reckless disregard for personal and national boundaries in his own search carries the story from there.
Obsessed with sickness and its diagnosis, The Liberated Bride gives us Carlo Tedeschi's hypochondria, Samaher's imagined illness and a terminal ailment Rivlin invents for himself to rouse the sympathy of Galya and her family. The book's panoply of professional Orientalists, meanwhile, are preoccupied with divining the mysteries of the "Arab soul," and the maladies said to lie within; Ephraim Akri, one of Rivlin's colleagues, repeatedly expounds a Bernard Lewis-style "theory of Arab failure" (he is even summoned to an American conference on Edward Said's Orientalism to counter the influence of Said's disciples, who are said to be "terrorizing the academic community").
Though it would be unfair to characterize The Liberated Bride as fundamentally an "Orientalist" novel, that spirit permeates it nevertheless. Like Tedeschi's wife, who needs the sickness of her partner, Rivlin, with his "long-craved intimacy with the Arabs," displays a complicated attachment to their afflictions. Indeed, as Rivlin testifies after Tedeschi's death, it was his anxiety over "our inability to understand the Arab mind" that gave rise to his hypochondria. The diagnosis of Israeli society, meanwhile, is left to others: It is telling that Professor Rivlin focuses on Algeria at the expense of the situation under his nose. ("When will you write something about us?" the Palestinians in Mansura inquire.) For the French in Algeria faced then a situation not unlike the Israelis today: forced to choose between withdrawal from Algeria and the integration of Algerians into France. In the end, of course, they got both.
"We have hooked our circulatory system to that of the Palestinians," Yehoshua said with great concern in a recent interview, and The Liberated Bride suggests that the solution to the spreading sickness is quarantine. Separation, between lovers and nations, is the road to liberation. But The Liberated Bride is, above all, an anxious book, and its plea for separation--between Ofer and Galya, Carlo and Hannah, Rashid and Samaher--cannot conceal a creeping unease about the efficacy of these liberations. It is a pitch-perfect evocation of the anxiety of liberal Israelis, and returns compulsively to a deeper and more troubling issue unlikely to be resolved by even the highest "security" wall: the identity and future of Israel's more than 1 million Palestinian citizens. The book's Arab characters, after all, are themselves Israeli citizens. They have a hybrid identity; Fu'ad, the hotel's maitre d', is an "Israeli Arab, who was not yet a Jew and no longer a true son of the desert." And this partial identity, like that of the Jews in the diaspora--"they are becoming our Jews," Yehoshua says of the Palestinians--cannot but represent an existential threat to Yehoshua's conception of Zionism, which is meant to redeem the catastrophe of the diaspora through a muscular and distinct definition of Israeliness and the separation of Jews from non-Jews.
Since the publication of his first stories nine years after the founding of the state, Yehoshua has sought to represent and articulate a vision of a consolidated but complex Israeli identity that might free his people from the traps of history. The rich depictions of the Israeli everyday found in A Late Divorce and Five Seasons accomplish this just as beautifully as the explicit interrogation to which he subjects the past in his masterpiece, Mr. Mani. But yesterday's traps are not necessarily today's, and while Yehoshua has soldiered on, history has refused to stand still; his ardor for a complete identity exists today in stark isolation from the scrambled Levantine reality. The failed policies of the last quarter-century--chief among them the settlement enterprise and its accompanying "separation" wall--have made separation less rather than more likely. With each year, each settlement, each suicide bombing and each "targeted killing," the mirrored peoples are entangled further in their bloody mise en abyme; the solutions to the past may be no help for the problems of the future.