The Engineering of Plot,
from Sephardism to Evolution:
A Review of A. B. Yehoshua, Friendly Fire: A Duet,translated by Stuart Schoffman

Reviewed by Judith Roumani

ISBN 978-0-15-101419-4

The novelist A. B. Yehoshua has a pre-eminent reputation as both an Israeli novelist and a Sephardic novelist, on two counts. First, he is a scion on his father’s side of one of the old Sephardic families originating from the Old City of Jerusalem, and on his mother’s side descends from a Moroccan Sephardic family. Second, he has authored at least two inspired novels dealing with Sephardic history, Mr. Mani, [1] and A Journey to the End of the Millennium. [2] To translate Yehoshua for an English-speaking public, with his often antique and exotic characters, whose ways of thinking expressed in stream of consciousness are alien to our modern mentality, is a challenge that three different translators have all fulfilled admirably.

Mr. Mani is a novel worth reading and rereading. Published in Hebrew in 1989, it came out in an English translation by the able Hillel Halkin, appropriately, in 1992, the quincentenary of the expulsion of Sephardim from Spain, when all things Sephardic came to the fore in the Jewish world. As Spain had discovered America, American Jews in 1992 discovered Spanish Jewry. It is the imaginative portrayal of several generations of the Mani family, a genuine Sephardic surname that can be linked in Hebrew and in English, as well as other languages, to the word ‘manic’. Each generation (traced back as far as the early years of the nineteenth century) has a Mr. Mani of slightly wobbly sanity, often with a suicidal obsession, yet engendering the next generation despite himself. Yehoshua’s technical virtuosity in the novel shows in his choice of form: the Mani characters are seldom present but their exploits are the topic of conversation for  characters who often do not even know them directly. Thus the novel is divided into five conversations, each of which is conveyed to us through one side only. The reader is thus constantly making a deductive and imaginative effort, akin to eavesdropping on one side only of a telephone conversation, to fill in the other side being expressed by unrelated and culturally alien characters, mostly liable to consider the Sephardic behavioral patterns somewhat strange by their own standards. One pair is an Ashkenazi mother and her daughter on a kibbutz in southern Israel in 1982, another pair are two British officers in Jerusalem in 1918, discussing a Mani who is under threat of execution for spying for the Turks; another pair are a German mother and her Nazi officer son in occupied Crete in 1944; only the last conversation is conducted by an actual member of the family, Avraham Mani, born in 1799 in Salonika, and here we do indeed find confirmed the slight insanity within the family genes. We have thus gone back in time through the generations of the family, gradually learning more about the Manis and their obsessions. Yehoshua’s technical virtuosity combines with the portrait of a fictional Sephardic dynasty that is a tour-de-force.

Continuing with a Sephardic thematic, Yehoshua’s Journey to the End of the Millenium is likewise an excursion into very different mentalities from our time. Set in the year 999, on the eve of the first Christian millennium, against the backdrop of a Europe that is becoming increasingly fanatical and restless and anxious to seek out scapegoats as the millennium of its crucified god approaches, as one of the characters expresses it, the novel focuses on the contrast between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic world views. As before, Yehoshua has done his research and brings up a long superseded controversy between Ashkenazi followers of Rabbenu Gershom and Sephardim on the question the acceptability of polygamy. An affluent Jewish merchant of Morocco sets sail to Paris on his merchant ship, and eventually travels to Worms, together with his two wives, to convince the young Ashkenazi woman whom his partner and nephew has recently married that his own matrimonial arrangement is normal, and in accordance with Jewish law. He brings along a rabbi from Spain armed with reason and Halakha and hopes that the evident harmony between the two wives will convince the somewhat fanatical new niece-by-marriage not to force her husband to give up his lucrative partnership with his uncle. This novel’s archaic setting is rendered concrete, attractive and sensual, as modern readers are forced to reconsider through new eyes an old issue that we thought had been decided once and for all. The reader’s sympathy is drawn to characters whose values we would instinctively reject if it were not for Yehoshua’s masterly portrayal, putting us inside the characters’ feelings, values and emotions in a style that has often been called Faulknerian. Our values are upended and overturned: civilization in the novel dwells in southern, light-filled, Muslim lands; the dark north is all mud, Viking pirates, barbarians, and Christian fanaticism. The Sephardim are the civilized majority, the Ashkenazim are the uncultured Jews.

These two novels (together with his earlier Molkho) have established Yehoshua as a preeminent Sephardic novelist as well as one of the most original Israeli contemporary crafters of fiction. [3] However, Yehoshua does not rest here but goes on to attack more frontiers of our species in his Darwinian Friendly Fire (2008) through his technical virtuosity.

Yehoshua has constructed his latest novel, Friendly Fire, like a true engineer. The engineer, in this case, designs elevators. On a technical level, the novel moves as elevator cables do: with two parallel narratives (a husband and wife during a temporary separation) moving in opposite directions, then coming together at the end. The mechanism of the novel works perfectly, creating cliffhangers every few pages. Sometimes, like an aged but cherished elevator, it is even a bit obvious and clunky, but nevertheless delivers us successfully to the next landing. We empathize with the characters and their suffering, especially that of parents who have lost their children in war. The novel is full of binary pairs of opposites: Judaism versus idol-worship, civilized Israel versus darkest Africa, Adam versus the Missing Link, male rationality versus feminine intuition, the national destiny of the Jews versus Palestinian nationalism, the Jewish religion versus worship of a Canaanite female idol. These move in opposite directions, forever at war. Against the aging process and tired characters who lose sexual desire through emotional suffering or illness, there is a sense of Africa as a continent of possibility, Africa as the birthplace of mankind and the home of evolution, in this case embodied in the shape of an elephant of long memory but also the possessor of an enormous eye, thus able perhaps to bring hope for the future, not for this generation but future generations..

The structure of the novel is ostensibly the eight days of Chanukah, the festival of light, but many motifs are dark ones. Fire is a deadly theme, and there is a dark and ambiguous relationship between the father of the soldier who has died by friendly fire and a Palestinian woman who is potentially a terrorist. All these vast, disturbing, and weighty themes are handled with consummate skill by one of Israel’s foremost novelists with an international reputation: for page-turning plot, as well as heart-touching emotion, few novelists can elevate us like A. B. Yehoshua.

[1] Mar Mani, 1989; translated by Hillel Halkin as Mr. Mani (New York: Doubleday, 1992).

[2] Masa’ el tom ha-elef, 1998, translated by Nicholas de Lange, A Journey to the End of the Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

[3] For a broader consideration of the topic, see Bernard Horn’s forthcoming  “Beyond Sephardic Identity: The Novels of A. B. Yehoshua,” in Yael Halevi-Wise, ed., Sephardism: Spanish Jewish History and the Modern Literary Imagination (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).

Copyright by Sephardic Horizons, all rights reserved. ISSN Number 2158-1800