Cutting scenes

The war is giving A.B. Yehoshua writer's block.

August 10, 2006 02:06
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The US publishers hated the title of A.B. Yehoshua's latest book, The Mission of the Human Resources Manager. It was, they argued, better suited to a personnel manual than the work of one of Israel's most venerated authors. Ignoring Yehoshua's pleas, they christened the novel's English translation A Woman in Jerusalem. Rummaging through the shelves of his apartment in Ramat Gan, Yehoshua locates a copy of the book and studies its cover, whose stylized picture of a woman's glittery eyelid is another clear attempt by the publishers to inject sex appeal into his latest creation. "I have to admit," he says, cheerfully, "they did a good job." Yehoshua may be stubborn - his political views have ruffled more than a few feathers - but he seems to take criticism in stride. In May, Yehoshua caused an uproar at a prestigious gathering of American Jewry in Washington when he declared that Diaspora Jewry cannot live genuinely Jewish lives unless they move to Israel, and that "Judaism outside Israel has no future. If you do not live in Israel... your Jewish identity has no meaning at all." While Yehoshua eventually softened his remarks, his views have not changed significantly. "In Israel," he says, "You can be a full Jew, with all the responsibilities and the obligations that come along with it." Israel's ethical character, he believes, is a direct reflection of its people's collective Jewish responsibility. A Woman in Jerusalem is Yehoshua's attempt to explore the boundaries of that responsibility. Following a suicide bombing at a crowded market, the corpse of Yulia Ragayev, a Russian-Orthodox temporary worker, lies unclaimed and unidentified in a Jerusalem morgue. A "weasel" of a journalist discovers a bloodied pay slip linking Ragayev to a well-established bakery, and writes an expose condemning the bakery for its failure to claim her body. Shamed by the journalist's accusations of heartless indifference, the bakery's owner decides to atone for his company's neglect. He assigns his human resources manager - a man whose family life has slowly disintegrated - to take any measures necessary to restore the bakery's good name. While at first resentful, the human resources manager comes to share his boss's desire for atonement. Together with the journalist, he escorts Ragayev's corpse home for burial, only to discover that the dead woman's mother wants her daughter buried in Jerusalem. The novel, which has a palpable darkness to it, is almost bluntly allegorical. Aside from Yulia Ragayev, whose name becomes almost a mantra for the human resources manager, the characters in A Woman in Jerusalem are nameless; we know them only through their functions. The lack of quotidian identifiers is just one of the ways that Yehoshua has distanced himself from A Liberated Bride, his optimistic 2004 novel about a Haifa professor who breaks through personal, familial, ethnic and national boundaries. The difference, Yehoshua says, was all in the timing. Whereas he began writing Bride before the outbreak of the second intifada, A Woman in Jerusalem was conceived during "Israel's gloomiest days." "In one terrorist attack in Tel Aviv," he says, "tens of people were killed, among them a whole family." Yehoshua began to be bothered by what he saw as Israel's inability to cope with civilian death. "For soldiers," he says, "there is a whole system of mourning. We are used to it, and it's very important to Israeli society to commemorate the soldiers who were sent by us, for us, and were killed. "But what about the lady who was drinking coffee in a caf when she was killed, or a foreign worker who was sitting on a bus? How do we make sense of that? They were not killed for defending their country or conquering territory - if it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone. It was disturbing." Also disturbing, Yehoshua says, was the way "that Israeli society tried to repress the deaths. In the beginning, there was news, but after a certain time, the bus was cleaned up, and society returned to 'normal life.' It's very dangerous for a society to repress things." As a temporary worker, a non-Jew and a woman without a family, Ragayev represents death at its most marginal. "I wanted to take my pen," Yehoshua says, "and put it inside the black plastic shroud. I wanted to take this anonymous victim and try to make love to her." Like many of Yehoshua's protagonists, the human resources manager has an almost neurotic obsessiveness about him; as well as a desire to push past interpersonal boundaries and peek into the secret corners of peoples' lives. Yehoshua says that while he no doubt brings this obsessiveness from "a personal quest, a turbulence, an unrest," his characters' missions are aimed at "accomplishing something, repairing reality and taking responsibility." WHETHER IN The Lover, Open Heart, A Liberated Bride or A Woman in Jerusalem, those missions have involved crossing borders of some kind - an issue that continues to preoccupy Yehoshua, with no signs of abatement. It is the same issue, he says, that propelled his hotly contested remarks in Washington. "The question of the borders is the most important one for the Jews," he says. "If I had to define Zionism in one word, I would say 'borders.' For centuries, the Jews crossed borders, moving from one country to another, exchanging national identities. Israel has been a tremendous change in the Jewish DNA. Today we must have borders, and we must have sovereignty and responsibility on those borders." Tellingly, in A Woman in Jerusalem, the journalist tells the human resources manager that "true love requires separation." Politically, Yehoshua has been a forceful voice in the call for separation. In 2002, at the height of the bloody second intifada, he joined other left-wing intellectuals and political figures in calling for unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians. In addition to withdrawing from the territories, Yehoshua suggested a security fence with openings for passage between Israel and the Palestinian territories. Last summer, he says, when the Israeli army evacuated Jews from Gaza, he was "very proud of Israel - proud of the way in which it was done, proud of how the settlers behaved. Not one drop of blood was spilled. "We have to end the occupation and give the Palestinians the possibility of creating a state," Yehoshua says. "Unfortunately, what is happening now will only make that harder. Every time a Palestinian fires a shot, it reinforces the right wing in Israel. To me, this is the saddest thing - when it's time to re-open the debate about the occupation, it will be far more difficult with the right." While Yehoshua describes Israel's three major mistakes "which we have paid for dearly" as the occupation, settlement building and the first war in Lebanon, he supports Israel's current efforts to root out Hizbullah, calling it "not just a terrorist group, but a declared enemy that denies Israel's existence. "Lebanon is an external war - we haven't occupied Hizbullah's land. They aren't fighting for freedom or for territory; it's purely ideological. They've accumulated thousands of missiles without any interference by the Lebanese government, and were free to do whatever they wanted without paying the consequence. They are a state within a state, and this by itself is so dangerous. "Israel has a moral reason to attack," he continues, "but the scale of the attack can be examined every time." Israel, Yehoshua believes, must accept a ceasefire "on the condition of moving Hizbullah from the frontier - that is the reasonable target of this war, not more." And Yehoshua has a vested interest in a ceasefire - Hizbullah's rockets continue to rain down on Haifa, the city which he and his wife have called home for over 30 years. The couple, who "want to be very good grandparents," purchased their apartment in Ramat Gan in order to be closer to their children and grandchildren on weekends. The Yehoshua's youngest grandchild, a tiny baby girl, sleeps peacefully on the living-room sofa while her grandfather is interviewed. None of Yehoshua's four children is a writer - a fact about which he is "very happy." "It's frustrating to be in art," he says. "You're exposed to tension and criticism day and night." In Israel, especially, he says, there is very little privacy. Yehoshua recounts that he once accompanied Saul Bellow to a restaurant in Cambridge after Bellow received the Nobel Prize. "I was astonished that nobody in the restaurant noticed him. Here, everyone in the gas station talks to me - they ask, 'why are you so na ve, how could you say what you say, how could you be so stupid…' They quarrel with me, but with a lot of kindness and respect," he says with a laugh. While Yehoshua has clearly learned to take criticism with a grain of salt, he admits that he appreciates the relative anonymity of Haifa, where he and his wife moved shortly after their marriage. Before then, home for Yehoshua, a fifth-generation Jerusalemite, was the location of his latest book. Yehoshua says that the city is in his blood, and it intoxicates him. "I'm connected to Jerusalem almost too much. It has to appear in every one of my books." In A Woman in Jerusalem, Yulia Ragayev's death "renewed the shabby suffering city." Her marginal, outsider's presence in the city - as well as her mother's insistence that she be returned for burial there - speaks to Yehoshua's belief that the city "belongs to everyone." "We cannot possess Jerusalem with a national flag," he says. "We must elevate it to the monotheistic cradle of humanity." Yehoshua believes that the Old City should be governed by a joint, non-governmental body representing the three monotheistic religions. Meanwhile, the author is at work on his next book, a novel called Friendly Fire that follows a couple in their sixties following the death of the wife's sister. The book, Yehoshua says, "shifts from one place to another, which gives me liberty to cut the scene where I want. "The characters are telling me to go on," says Yehoshua, "but I don't have time." The war, he says, is preventing him from writing.

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