A B Yehoshua: A road map to righteousness

As novelist and commentator, A B Yehoshua acts as a moral touchstone for Israelis. Donald Macintyre talks to him in Haifa about the ethics of writers and states
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The Independent Culture

With AB Yehoshua, as with Graham Greene, you're never quite sure whether art is imitating life or the reverse. On a coffee table in his Haifa living room a copy of Ha'aretz magazine is open at a long article on David Bukay, a fellow academic of Yehoshua's at the city's university. Bukay is under investigation for making statements about Arabs so racist that even the Anti-Defamation League, usually the exclusive scourge of anti-Semites, has denounced him. It irresistibly recalls Ephraim Akri, a Haifa academic colleague of the hero in Yehoshua's wonderfully rich and ultimately hopeful novel The Liberated Bride, which is set almost as much in the West Bank as in Israel. Akri "had arrived at what he believed to be a scholarly conclusion that [Arabs] could never understand - let alone respect, desire or implement - the idea of freedom."

With AB Yehoshua, as with Graham Greene, you're never quite sure whether art is imitating life or the reverse. On a coffee table in his Haifa living room a copy of Ha'aretz magazine is open at a long article on David Bukay, a fellow academic of Yehoshua's at the city's university. Bukay is under investigation for making statements about Arabs so racist that even the Anti-Defamation League, usually the exclusive scourge of anti-Semites, has denounced him. It irresistibly recalls Ephraim Akri, a Haifa academic colleague of the hero in Yehoshua's wonderfully rich and ultimately hopeful novel The Liberated Bride, which is set almost as much in the West Bank as in Israel. Akri "had arrived at what he believed to be a scholarly conclusion that [Arabs] could never understand - let alone respect, desire or implement - the idea of freedom."

Although the novel's protagonist Yochanan Rivlin thought his arguments "smacked of racism", Akri, an old-school orientalist who socialised with his Arab students, was much more moderate than the real-life political scientist Bukay, whom Yehoshua knows. "When I said to him, are you for putting the [Jewish] settlements among the Arabs, he said 'yes'. So I know all his arguments are not scientific arguments, but because he is a hawk and wants some territory."

This says much about Yehoshua as a public intellectual. He is "not on the extreme left", but firmly in the peace camp. Yehoshua's words on politics weigh heavily because he is so widely regarded in Israel as the country's greatest, as well as its most versatile, novelist. Although Yehoshua might be a shade less famous internationally than his friend Amos Oz, that judgement has now been recognised in his shortlisting for next month's first Man Booker International Prize.

His British publisher Peter Halban is also reissuing Five Seasons. Although that novel is less well-known in Europe than, say, The Lover or Mr Mani, Yehoshua says several friends have told him it's his best book. Molkho, the central character, loses his wife after nursing her through a long cancer and then gradually embarks on a series of unconsummated and sometimes comically unsatisfactory liaisons with women.

Conjugal relationships are important in Yehoshua's work. He has been married for 45 years to a psychoanalyst, Rivka, who has a clinic across from their apartment. Indeed, all family ties are important. Asked about the bookshelf pictures of his two grandchildren, he says he has read somewhere that a capacity to bond with grandchildren is the "only" factor which differentiates the emotional lives of humans from other animals.

So is Molkho being faithful to his wife even after death? Yehoshua shakes his head: "I wanted to examine the process of mourning and the unconscious... after her death, after the long illness in which he was doing his best to treat and support her, he thinks he is now free, that now she's gone. But she hasn't gone; she was swallowed by him. She's inside him. He has to do a whole process of healing, not only of her physical being but also of her soul". That year-long process has been compared to Orpheus trying to bring Eurydice back from the underworld. Molkho accidentally sees the Gluck opera during his half unconscious quest for what Yehoshua calls the "spiritual source" of his wife's cancer. His quest reaches a kind of exorcising climax when he goes back to the Berlin street where she lived as a child and where her father committed suicide 50 years before.

Yehoshua is proud that he has met widowers who say "It was like you were lying under my bed in all this year of the death of my wife. I felt you were so near to my feelings." He says with a smile: "I always say I have to have a very strong marriage in order to write about a widower" or, he adds, a book like Journey to the end of the Millennium, about a tenth century Jewish merchant with two wives who travels to Europe and confronts the monogamous and - for Jews - ultimately prevailing codes of that continent. The latter book has, to Yehoshua's delight, been turned into an opera which has just opened in Tel Aviv.

Yehoshua's most recent novel, not yet published in English, is The Mission of the Human-Resource Man. It's set in the dark context of the Israel- Palestinian conflict and centres on the death of a foreign woman worker in a suicide bombing. He wanted to confront a specific problem, familiar to anyone who has watched the amazingly rapid clean-up operation after a suicide attack. That is the tendency to find it difficult, almost to the point of "suppression", to commemorate the civilians killed in such attacks.

"We have a tradition of honouring the soldiers who are victims," he says. "But the people killed in the first [suicide] attacks sitting in a café or in a bus or going to the supermarket - they were not heroes." Israelis as well as Palestinians became "almost indifferent. The slogan was to return to normality, and it is even death without a possibility of revenge because the terrorist was killed with his victim."

The novel is dedicated to Dafna, a peace activist and close friend of Yehoshua and his wife, who was killed in the Hebrew University suicide bombing in 2003. The woman's employers don't even notice that she is missing until a newspaper article attacks them for their neglect. "What I wanted to do is take the most anonymous death... from the very bureaucratic point of view of a manager of human resources in a big factory. He has to bring her body back to her home and during this voyage he is almost falling in love with her in a certain way."

Although Yehoshua says the novel is "not political but kind of metaphysical", he remains absorbed by the prospects for peace. Because he thought that the chances of negotiating a peace agreement with Yasser Arafat ("unique in history because he wanted chaos") had evaporated with Camp David, Yehoshua argued for unilateral withdrawal from 80 percent of the occupied territories long before Ariel Sharon thought of disengagement from Gaza. The arrival of Mahmoud Abbas as Arafat's successor can, he believes, "bring something good but... on condition that Israel does something serious [about starting to withdraw from the West Bank] after disengagement."

But doesn't continued expansion of the West Bank Jewish settlements undermine the chances of agreement? "The United States could stop it so easily," he replies. "Since the Six Day War they were saying all the time they were against the settlements and they have done nothing."

Uncharacteristically, he raises his voice. If the US did, "they would be blessed by half of the Jewish population of Israel. They could stop it by saying to the prime minister of Israel 'you will not get funds for these weapons if you will not stop it'." US foreign policy also figures in his scathing denunciation of the British university teachers' union boycott of the university of which he is the most celebrated faculty member. It is "a shame for the British spirit" of debate and enquiry "to do this without finding out what is happening" in the universities. "I didn't see any boycotting of American universities during the Vietnam war or during the Iraq war which you yourselves are fighting in... you [boycott] a fine university that puts on its flag co-operation with the Arabs."

As a secular Jew from an old Sephardic family, Yehoshua has become increasingly preoccupied with the tightening hold of fundamentalist religion - Jewish, Muslim, Christian. He feels that we have to find "what is missing in the secular culture" that allowed this to happen. The answer, he suggests, lies in the loss of a "sense of guilt", in which moral questions have been subordinated to psychology or contracted out to law. He points to the tendency to think that "justice can be decided in the courts." So that whatever the rights or wrong of doing so "If I have permission to drive at 130kph, I will drive at 130 kph."

Which is where the power of literature comes in. Yehoshua cites his book of essays The Terrible Power of a Minor Guilt, discussing how much modern criticism, and perhaps literature, has abandoned the moral judgements of the 19th century in favour of other benchmarks like "complexity" and "novelty". He explains that, "if Crime and Punishment started with the childhood of Raskolnikov and how his father died when he was young, then all these moral dilemmas would be completely lost in psychology and explanations of his motivation." The book ends with a pæan to the "moral growth" in Raymond Carver's short story 'The Cathedral' in which the central character, despite his deep initial hostility, begins to empathise with a blind man."

From his own work, he cites at random two moral dilemmas: whether Rivlin in The Liberated Bride is right to go behind the back of his son to discover, out of a desire to help, why his marriage collapsed; and the human-resource manager's responsibility for a dead woman whom he doesn't know.

"The clear straight moral judgement - is it right to do it? - this was lost a little bit by too much psychology... I don't always succeed but I myself try to bring morality more to the front stage of my writing." The task, he says is not necessarily "to give the answers but at least to ask the questions." It's what makes Yehoshua's fiction as challenging as it is - consistently - absorbing.

Biography: L A B Yehoshua

Avraham B Yehoshua was born in 1936 in Jerusalem, where his Sephardic family had lived for five generations. He studied at the Hebrew University, and taught at school and university level. In the 1960s, he lived in Paris for four years. His fictional debut, Death of the Old Man, came in 1962; later novels include The Lover (1977), Five Seasons (1987), Mr Mani (1990), Journey to the End of the Millennium (1999), The Liberated Bride (2001) and The Mission of the Human-Resource Man (2004). His fiction is published in the UK by Peter Halban. He has also written plays, and the short stories collected as The Continuing Silence of a Poet in 1988. A B Yehoshua has won the Bialik Prize and the Israel Prize for Literature, and is shortlisted for the inaugural Man Booker International Prize. He lives in Haifa with his wife, a psychoanalyst.

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