BOOK REVIEW / A state of mind: A B Yehoshua writes to understand Israel. His new novel explores its collective madness. He even suggests a cure

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The Independent Culture
ON HIS last stay in London, the Israeli novelist A B Yehoshua was invited to address the pupils of the Jewish Free School in Camden Town. It happens that I had played the same venue with Frederic Raphael a few weeks earlier, and we were rather taken aback when the head of religious studies asked us to wear kipot or skull-caps in the classroom. Since the school is not a place of religious worship, and our texts are not exactly holy writ, we refused - and

the authorities relented. By the time of Yehoshua's visit, however, their resolve had stiffened. And so, when he too declined to cover his head, he was shown the door. Yehoshua was not pleased. Apart from other matters of courtesy he did not feel it was the place of diaspora Jews to dictate terms to an Israeli. 'I am a complete and total Jew according to my own definitions,' he snapped. 'I don't have to wear a kipa to prove it.'

A B Yehoshua (in his Hebrew tongue pronounced Alef Bet Ye-ho-shua, though he is known more familiarly as Buli) is one of Israel's most controversial writers. His fiction is read by thousands and his political views make the front page. His new novel, Mr Mani, which comes with plaudits from Saul Bellow, Alfred Kazin and Cynthia Ozick, is an examination of the collective madness that seems to plague his country. There is even the suggestion of a cure.

Born in Jerusalem in 1936, Yehoshua began his career in the late Fifties. His role-models, known as the Generation of '48, wrote books that gave unstinting support to the heroic struggle for statehood. Yehoshua and his contemporaries, including the novelists Aharon Appelfeld, Amos Oz and the late Yaacov Shabtai, begged to differ; they rebelled against the nationalistic pieties of their elders.

Their books are at once literary and political. As Amos Oz has remarked, in Israel it is impossible to separate biography from history. The landmarks of lives are public events, like the wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, and - nowadays - the intifada. Speaking softly, Yehoshua admits that in another place at another time he might not have become a writer; for him writing is primarily a way of understanding his world.

Yehoshua's novels are intense studies of flawed heroes in disintegrating relationships and of families in crisis. Five Seasons, for example, is about a man's painful rehabilitation after the death of his wife, but it can also be read as a description of the struggle between Israel's Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities. Yehoshua, himself a Sephardi and fifth-generation Jerusalemite, uses the novel to present his own vision of Israel as a vital Mediterranean country, not a terminal Viennese transplant.

Does he worry that his novels may seem over-egged? 'It is true,' says Yehoshua, 'that critics look upon my books as symbol-mines, but they are not allegories. In Scandinavian countries, where they don't know the details of our history, they still enjoy the stories on their basic level. For me this is a test that the primary material is coming from life itself.' At the same time he refuses to apologise for his desire to be more than a story-teller. 'The Jewish writer cannot just entertain. He must always confront the big problems, and that's why there are so many symbols in our books, as a sort of duty to the other side of art. And we are all the time in tension between these two forces.'

His earliest efforts were exercises in anticipatory therapy: he imagined a series of worst- case scenarios and then attempted to deal with them. In 1982, however, several bad things really did happen. For a start, there was the invasion of Lebanon. Too old to fight, he was taken from his office at the University of Haifa (where he lectures in literature) and sent across the border with an educational unit. A week later he was returned, having been unable to disguise his true feelings from the soldiers he was supposed to be encouraging. No pacifist, he had always supported the use of arms in self-defence. Yet here was the Prime Minister boasting about a 'war of choice'. It was a betrayal of his most basic beliefs.

This public tragedy was followed by a private one - the death of his father, author of a dozen 'folkloric' books concerning Jerusalem and its inhabitants. It was as he watched his father being laid to rest with his father and his father's father, in an old Sephardi cemetery near the Garden of Gethsemane, that the genesis of Mr Mani first came to Yehoshua. Inspired by the thought of his ancestors co- habiting beneath the earth, he decided to borrow the modus operandi of the psychoanalyst. The Manis are put on the couch: their author probes deep into the 'inter-generational unconscious that is working on the psyche

of the individual, the roots of otherwise inexplicable behaviour.'

Mr Mani consists of five 'Conversations', effectively monologues, since only one half of the dialogue is extant. The first begins in 1982. Subsequent ones take us back through the generations, until we arrive at Jerusalem in the 1840s. On the last page, Avraham Mani describes the murder of his son, Yosef, in the great square before the Dome of the Rock, formerly known as Mount Moriah. The implication is clear: if Yehoshua had been so

inclined he could have followed the Manis all the way back to that fateful moment when God tempted Abraham, and the patriarch took his beloved son to Mount Moriah, bound him, and prepared to cut his throat. The akedah or binding of Isaac is, as it were, the primal trauma, the key the mania of the Manis (the pun is Yehoshua's), and the nation they represent.

It is also a good entree to Yehoshua's oeuvre: as his wife, a psychoanalyst, has remarked, all his fiction is at heart about the friction between father and son. In 1965 he published a story entitled 'Three Days and a Child'. 'Ah-ha,' cried the critics, quoting the narrator's desire to do away with the boy, 'Abraham and Isaac.' Yehoshua maintains that the echo was accidental. However, he took the hint. After all, as he put it, 'the myth had been disturbing me since my childhood.' Mr Mani is the culmination of an obsession.

The orthodox interpret the akedah as an example of Abraham's faith and God's ultimate mercy. Yehoshua sees it somewhat differently. What was the old man's motive? To ensure that his son would remain faithful to his God. 'Out of the fear of Isaac,' says Yehoshua, 'will come belief. It is the story of Jewish history.' Not, it is certain, a recipe for psychic well-being. 'We are still playing with the knife,' continues Yehoshua, 'but without any guarantee that the knife will be stopped. We have to liberate ourselves from this myth.'

When, in the Bible, God calls upon Abraham to prepare to sacrifice Isaac, He says: 'Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest . . .' The use of the word only is curious, since Isaac has a brother, Ishmael, the illegitimate son of Abraham and Hagar. It is no coincidence that Hagar Shiloh, Mr Mani's first narrator, also has an illegitimate son, with whom she retires to Beersheba in the Negev (following the example of her prototype). We later learn that, still unmarried, she has refused the services of a psychoanalyst. This may be a good sign. It suggests that the Israelis, by returning to the desert, by starting again, may at last regain their mental health.

'My Isaac has not forgotten his brother,' says Yehoshua, meaning that he does not subscribe to the line that Palestine was a land without people for a people without a land. Indeed, several of the Manis have an idee fixe, that the Arabs are really Jews with amnesia. Yehoshua, for his part, believes passionately in the two-state solution; Israel for Isaac, Palestine for Ishmael. His thoughts on the subject are implied in the novel's comparison of the German occupation of Crete with Israel's prolonged stay in the West Bank and Gaza. It is not Yehoshua's intention to hurl insults at his own people (after all, one of his sons has just left the army, and another is about to enter); he simply wants to remind his readers that such occupations degrade both parties, that 'there can never be a pure occupation'. It is, he says, 'my indirect way of coping with the intifada'.

Recently, at a party, I overheard an angry man on the rebound from Gaza assert that 'the Israelis are all bastards'. Yehoshua's work, not least Mr Mani, provides a moving corrective to that view, a humanistic antidote to all certainties, biblical or otherwise.

'Mr Mani', translated from the Hebrew by Hillel Halkin, is published by Peter Halban at pounds 15.99

(Photograph omitted)

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