Overstuffed and Undernourished (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 20, January 19, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A.B. Yehoshua's "Friendly Fire" is an exquisitely detailed narrative ramble in search of a focused theme. Toward the very end of "Friendly Fire," his latest book to appear in English translation, the venerable Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua engages in a bit of cheeky post-modern irony. Daniela, one of the story's main characters, reads the final pages of the Hebrew novel that she's been perusing throughout Yehoshua's narrative. The author relates: "Finally she starts to read, first returning to the last two pages of the previous chapter to reconstruct the context. There is a new tension in the voice of the author, who writes in the first person and identifies completely with the heroine. But it's still hard to decipher the nature of this tension. In any event, the irony and cynicism are muted, and gone are the tiresome descriptions of the landscape, which in previous chapters seemed to have been written more out of literary duty than to serve a narrative or psychological purpose. Apparently something grave is about to happen..." Fact is, Yehoshua has been fulfilling a lot of "literary duty" throughout this eminently readable but ultimately unsatisfactory novel, and here he all but acknowledges it. "Friendly Fire," which is subtitled "A Duet," tells two simultaneous stories in alternating chapters. The first plot line follows the aforementioned Daniela, a middle-aged schoolteacher, as she leaves Tel Aviv for a Hanukkah visit to her brother-in-law, the widower of her late sister, who is working in Tanzania. (The novel she reads is something she picked up on a whim at Ben-Gurion Airport.) Existing in the interleaved chapters is her husband Ya'ari, an elevator designer. The couple are appealing, especially in their mutual devotion. Their week of separation is not easy for them. Over the next 300 pages we observe Daniela experiencing Africa and Ya'ari wrestling with misbehaving elevators in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Daniela encounters a number of Africans, mildly interesting but not entirely worthy of the detail lavished on them via Yehoshua's imagination. Ya'ari handily copes with minor domestic problems involving his aged father, his children and grandchildren, again a mildly engaging ensemble but hardly meriting the scrupulous observation Yehoshua bestows on them. Each narrative is also larded with an abundance of unsubtle symbolism in the form of fires, winds, elevators, roofs and heights. The term "friendly fire" meanwhile is nearly whupped to death in its every permutation. The chief trouble with "Friendly Fire" is that it has too little trouble, that is, the sort of conflict that traditionally propels any story. Only toward the end of the novel does Yehoshua pull a sort of rabbit ex machina out of his hat. The brother-in-law, you see, has been grieving for the past half-dozen years over the death of his son, who was accidentally shot dead by his IDF comrades during an anti-terrorist operation (death by "friendly fire"). It's for this reason that the brother-in-law has sealed himself off from Israel, indeed won't even look at a Hebrew newspaper. I sigh over A.B. Yehoshua. Most of his books I adore, from the early short stories on through the recent "Open Heart" and "A Journey to the End of the Millennium." But his latest efforts, like "The Liberated Bride" and "A Woman in Jerusalem" have left me unmoved. To this last group I must add "Friendly Fire." Deftly translated by longtime Jerusalem Report columnist Stuart Schoffman, "Friendly Fire" comes off at once overstuffed and undernourished. It's an exquisitely detailed narrative ramble in search of a focused theme - the sort of novel whose intelligent writing convinces the reader that something significant is bound to happen at some point - and when it seems to reach that point, it doesn't. • Contributing Editor Matt Nesvisky frequently writes about books. Extract from an article in Issue 20, January 19, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.