Where there's smoke

Though the prose is exquisite, A.B. Yehoshua's new novel may leave some searching for the nearest exit.

AB Yehoshua 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
AB Yehoshua 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Friendly Fire By A.B. Yehoshua Translated by Stuart Schoffman Harcourt 400 pages; $26 While perusing the bowing bookshelves of a dinner party host recently, I noticed a large A.B. Yehoshua collection. "Looks like someone's a Yehoshua fan," I remarked. The hostess laughed, "Not exactly." She explained the books once belonged to her mother. No, her mother hadn't died - "Savta," as everyone called her, was alive and well and sitting across from me at the dinner table. "It came to a point that I was through with Yehoshua," Savta said. "Enough was enough!" A literature lover and a poet herself, she adored the writing but despised the ideology. She found herself torn, unable to throw the books away, and she bequeathed them to her daughter instead. Love him or hate him - or both, like Savta - Yehoshua provokes strong reactions in his readers. Sometimes. In the case of Yehoshua's newest novel, Friendly Fire: A Duet, the reader walks away from the book unsure of what reaction Yehoshua intended him or her to have. The story begins with a temporary separation. Long-married Daniela and Amotz Ya'ari will spend Hanukka apart, for the first time in their nearly 40-year marriage. Daniela will journey to Africa to visit her widowed brother-in-law, Yirmiyahu. Amotz will stay behind in Tel Aviv, attending to the minor daily dramas of the Ya'ari family, as well as the engineering design firm he owns. While Amotz's half of the duet is concerned with the business of ordinary life, Daniela's trip, which comprises the other half of the duet, is extraordinary not only in locale, but also in intent. She is calling upon her brother-in-law, who lives in self-imposed exile "[f]rom the whole mess, Jewish and Israeli," in hopes of reigniting her grief for her recently deceased sister. Yirmiyahu, however, sees Daniela's visit in a different light. She arrives laden with Israeli newspapers and Hanukka candles - she is carrying an armload of everything he hopes to escape. When she offers the bundle to him, he tosses "the whole mess" into the fire. "Please, don't spoil my rest," he tells her. "I'm 70 years old, and I'm allowed to disconnect a bit," he says, explaining that he's taking "a time out from my people, Jews in general and Israelis in particular." Why? Yirmiyahu and his late wife lost their son to "friendly fire," the fire showered upon him by fellow Israeli soldiers when they mistook him for an enemy. Yirmiyahu's only solace has come from detaching from the Jewish world. Daniela, however, cannot disconnect from her home. Despite the fact that she sheds her Israeli clothes and dons a colorful African dress while she is visiting Yirmiyahu, she cannot strip herself of her Jewish identity - as Yehoshua has said of Israelis, it is an intrinsic part of her fabric. Daniela unintentionally revives Yirmiyahu's grief. His wounds open and, eventually, Yirmiyahu bleeds with his own painful story. The story of Yirmiyahu's struggle to come to terms with his son's death is, perhaps, the most compelling of the many, varied storylines that have been woven into Friendly Fire. It is also, unfortunately, the shortest. Therein lies the greatest weakness of Friendly Fire - with so many characters, so many themes, so much commentary on Israel and Judaism, several threads are inevitably cut short. This problem also rears its head in the lighter half of the duet. In Tel Aviv, Amotz Ya'ari is busy juggling both family and work-related difficulties. The tenants of a new luxury apartment building are troubled by an otherworldly howling, audible only in the elevators - which Amotz's design firm was responsible for designing and installing. Amotz must determine how the wind causing the noise is getting in. As is often the case with Yehoshua's work, these story lines are heavy with symbolism and commentary about Israel. Though a variety of provocative issues - essential to Israel and the future of the Jewish state - bubble to the surface, several of them end up just floating away, unaddressed and unresolved. Because some questions are teased out but not fleshed out, the reader ends up feeling as though they were teased and tempted, only to be left with little more than smoky conclusions. Though the prose is absolutely exquisite and the story lines included in Friendly Fire are fascinating, the reader is left craving that strong reaction he or she expects to get from the usually powerful writing of A. B. Yehoshua.