Mandrakes from the Holy Land
By Aharon Megged Translated by Sondra Silverston The Toby Press 208pp., $22.95.
In Mandrakes from the Holy Land, veteran Israeli novelist Aharon Megged takes us on a tour of Israel at the time of the Second Aliya in 1906. His protagonist a fictional character who interacts with some historically based ones is a 31-year-old single British woman with psychological problems named Beatrice Campbell-Bennett.
Beatrice, a peripheral member of the Bloomsbury Circle back home in England is futilely in love with Vanessa Woolf, sister of Virginia. She is also a conservative Christian who comes to the Holy Land with the announced aim of painting its biblical flowers. While seeking a sort of confirmation of her virginity in its pristine light, she is also particularly obsessed with the mandrake, the flower coveted by the biblical Rachel because of its supposed fertility-inducing powers.
Beatrice's journeys take her from Old Jaffa to the Jerusalem area, the Judean Desert, Nablus, Zichron Ya'acov, Galilee and the Golan. These places, along with their colorful Jewish, Arab, British and other inhabitants, are evoked compellingly in Megged's simple but poetic prose, rendered with perfect nuance by Sondra Silverston. Especially charming is the picture of early Zionist innocence in Zichron, where Beatrice stays with the Aaronsohn family, who later won fame in the Nili group that spied on the Turks for the British.
Life is a good deal less than idyllic, though, for Beatrice, who not only has lesbian longings for Vanessa and other women, but also harbors confused feelings towards men that combine revulsion with desires for pregnancy.
It turns out that her father was a womanizer who drove her mother to alcoholism, and in her childhood Beatrice was approached in a church by a lecherous minister. Indeed, her letters to Vanessa and her diary entries which form most of the novel are commented on by one Dr. Morrison, a psychologist and friend of her family who is sent to the Holy Land to try to save her from a descent into madness.
BEATRICE'S TROUBLES begin with her Arab dragoman Aziz, who showers her with flirtatious attention that she only half deflects. Passing through the Nablus area on their way to Zichron, she lets him accompany her alone at dusk on a hike up Mount Gerizim, and then in Nablus itself agrees to stay the night at his uncle's house instead of a nearby hotel. During the night, a supposed rape scene occurs with Aziz, which Dr. Morrison correctly interprets as either imaginary or brought on by Beatrice's subconscious and wayward yearnings.
But her spiritual quests continue. It is Aaron Aaronsohn, a world-class agronomist and the leader of Nili, who takes her on a long tour of Galilee and the Golan in search of mandrakes, which they don't find, and in search of the "purifying" white lily, which they do. Back in Zichron, however, Beatrice has another misadventure, this time with a Jewish rogue named Rosenstein, who doesn't have much difficulty getting her to join him in an empty guardhouse at night. Beatrice again manages to convince herself that she's been raped.
By this time, Beatrice has cracked. She flees Zichron for Haifa, and in her hotel room there she rips up all the paintings she's done of flowers, only to replace them with new versions in which the flowers are dripping with blood.
Her next stop is Magdala, the town beside Lake Kinneret where Mary Magdalene lived. Beatrice, in emulation of this New Testament figure a prostitute who was redeemed by Jesus makes herself available to the young Arab men of the town before being saved from the degradation, though not from her madness, by a minister and by Dr. Morrison.
By the end of the story, Beatrice is still in perilous condition, living in Magdala and fantasizing that she's pregnant with the children of Jacob and Esau and even with Jesus himself, as Dr. Morrison contemplates having her trundled off to a mental hospital in England.
Though this summary may sound dramatic, I wasn't particularly drawn along by the novel because it doesn't establish why the pathetic, suffering, delusional Beatrice is important, or how her troubles connect to worlds outside her own. To Dr. Morrison, her sexual hang-ups and her "theopathic" (as he calls it) sublimations of them in biblical imagery and motifs may be fascinating, but he is a creature of his time that is, the early days of psychology as a discipline.
As a contemporary reader I tended most of all to feel sorry for Beatrice. Lastingly valuable, however, is what surrounds her a rich, authentic picture of Israel a century ago, evoked with Megged's subtle lyricism.
The writer is a freelance journalist and translator living in Jerusalem.