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By A.B. Yehoshua
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Reviewed by Yair Ben-Zvi
This is the seventh work I've read of AB Yehoshua, one the 'Three Terrors' of modern Israeli literature (the other two being Amos Oz and David Grossman). Yehoshua is a...complicated man, and this is reflected in his work, for good and ill.
Yehoshua is a Sephardic Jew born and raised in Israel, Jerusalem to be precise, who considers the only truly Jewish life to be one in Israel. The Jewish Diaspora is a non-entity, a fledgling and pale imitation that can't even begin to measure up to the full Jewish actualization that is only possible in Israel. The Diaspora is where Judaism survived, and Israel is where it thrives. Now, notwithstanding all or any credence I give to this viewpoint, Yehoshua's views clearly permeate his works, almost to the line. Nationalistic pride mingled with a healthy (read: trivializing) condescension towards Jewish life outside of Israel, and even certain kinds of Jewish life in Israel.
I will only say that during a recent interview on British television to promote this book Yehoshua was confronted by a British journalist who had the audacity to point out some logical holes in the writer's argument. Namely that incredible amounts of fantastic and enriching literature and art and culture have been produced in the Jewish people's long exile, including the codifying of the Torah and its laws. Yehoshua hemmed and hawed, acknowledged those achievements quickly and proceeded to hammer away despite, going on to call the Zionist movement a concept birthed from writers, a tradition he seeks to continue apparently.
If from what I've written you glean the idea that Yehoshua is more than a bit arrogant, congratulations, it's because he is, massively so. He's considered by many to be Israel's equivalent to William Faulkner when in fact he comes off as more an acolyte shoehorning what he considers Faulkner-like passages into his work with all the subtlety, grace, and functionality of a train with no wheels being pushed off a cliff. In point of fact Yehoshua's peccadilloes are suspiciously Norman Mailer-like (minus the conviction of real bravado covered by very heavy handed flights of whimsy) in their obsession with the sexually lurid, and the violent; and Hemingway-esque with their stoicism of the artistic male and the unfortunate subverting of women in light of that fact.
Now, all that considered, this is actually a good book, very good in fact. Unlike the clunky sludge of Open Heart, the Faulkner flights of fancy are kept to a surprising minimum. And unlike the sentimentalist self-indulgent tripe of Friendly Fire, the characters have something to do besides whine and navel gaze (sometimes). This book is not one of Yehoshua's best, but it ranks up there. It's a fascinatingly uneven chimera work that interweaves several surprisingly different threads of storytelling with a degree of success that says, to me, that Yehoshua has writing chops that, again like Mailer, are more often than not brought down by his hubris.
What we get with this work is one part film study, one part My Dinner with Andre, another part concluding scene to the Grapes of Wrath coupled with Roman art, and a distinctly Israeli flavor to the proceedings that gives the text a soft and languid warmth that, unfortunately, also slows and at times suffocates the text to a maddening stall. Oh, and to not be forgetful, Yehoshua has absolutely no idea how to pace a story, at all, read: at all.
So it's worth a read, maybe even a reread as this is a book with serious depths to explore. And if you can, like I am able occasionally, to separate author from work, then you'll find a rich, painfully slow, but ultimately rewarding novel. Though several ideas are half-developed or quickly rigged to the plot like fresh paint on the Mona Lisa, flashy, nice seeming, but in the end unnecessary. The biggest offenders in this vein are the inclusion of Kafka that Yehoshua botches completely and the fascinating but ultimately somewhat out of place Don Quixote inspired ending, it just felt tacked on to fit the purposes of protagonist Moses' rejuvenation of his artistic soul when any of a number of other sources referenced in the story would have worked substantially better.
Take a chance, it's worth it, but take in the words on the paper rather than the words from the author's own mouth, you'll see quite the divide between the man and his pages.
Out of 10: 7.7