A Woman in Jerusalem, by A B Yehoshua, trans Hillel Halkin

Chronicle of a coffin and a cleaner
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The Independent Culture

A B Yehoshua regularly conceals mysteries in plain prose. Some of A Woman in Jerusalem sounds almost bureaucratic - intentionally, as its Hebrew title (The Mission of the Human Resources Director) shows. But this is his most mysterious book yet: too mysterious, this time, for me.

A suicide bomb kills a woman carrying a pay-slip from a famous bakery. A journalist publishes an attack on the bakery for doing nothing to help or even bury its employee. The elderly owner instructs his Human Resources Manager to accept full responsibility. The manager, ironically, is so bad at human resources that he has an appalling relationship with his ex-wife, no relationship with his daughter, and no memory of his employee. Like the good army officer he was, however, he accepts the mission.

The woman was Yulia Ragayev, a temporary resident, a Russian engineer who worked as a cleaner. Soon he comes to share his boss's longing for atonement. He becomes obsessed by Yulia's beauty, which he had not noticed in life ("All you see of beauty or goodness is its shadow," his secretary says.) He visits her body in the morgue and agrees to escort it home.

Accompanied by the journalist, he takes the coffin on an epic journey across Russia. On the way he dreams of passionate love for her, and survives an episode of food poisoning, from which he emerges purged of all poisons. But when they finally arrive, Yulia's mother pleads that she be buried in Jerusalem after all. He agrees to take Yulia's body, together with her mother and son, back to Jerusalem, in which she had believed "more than Jerusalem believes in itself".

There are human riches here. The manager moves from a man who has given up on love to one who opens himself to it. And there are strange and powerful scenes - of the morgue, of the coffin, of the Soviet base where the manager passes through the purging of body and soul.

But as this purging shows, the story is allegorical. That is clear from its shape and from its telling. It deals with vast themes - love and death, guilt and atonement - not in any old city, but in Jerusalem. Nameless people comment on the action, mostly in groups, like a Greek chorus. Only the dead woman has a name, and she is clearly more than a woman. Everyone who meets her is touched by love.

Who is she, and what is the meaning of her Tartar beauty? Is she the eternal alien, like the Jews themselves? If we must learn compassion for the Other, and atonement for our guilt towards them, why in Israel is she not a Palestinian? Why is she a Christian, almost a Christ figure?

If loving Jerusalem gives Yulia a right to it, why doesn't that bring us back to the Palestinians again? (I'm sorry, but Jews cannot avoid Palestinians any more than Germans can avoid Jews.) There is no mention of them. The journalist, a student of Plato, tells the manager that true love requires separation, so that it can rise above the body to the soul. What does this mean about Jerusalem, or about Israel, for both Arab and Jew? Is any of it what the book means? Alas, I don't know.

Carole Angier's life of Primo Levi, 'The Double Bond', is published by Penguin