The Independent Foreign Fiction Award: A stool, a scaffofd, a belt

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The Independent Culture
The winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Award for March / April is Mr Mani by A B Yehoshua, translated by Hillel Halkin (Peter Halban, pounds 15.99). It joins four other bi-monthly winners on the shortlist for the pounds 10,000 annual award, which will be announced in July. The other books are: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago, My Golden Trades by Ivan Klima, The Call of the Toad by Gunter Grass and The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare.

Mr Mani describes a hundred years in the life of the Mani family through the unusual and striking device of five distinct dialogues. Each dwells on an episode in the family's history - as Jews under German occupation in Crete, as a frail old man in modern Tel Aviv. Always, we hear only one side of the dialogue, and have to imagine what the other person is saying. Yehoshua's finely worked prose creates an atmosphere that is both ample and personal. In the extract quoted below, a young woman is telling her mother, who lives on a kibbutz, about the time when she made an unexpected visit to Mr Mani, the father of her boyfriend.

The judges were: Penelope Fitzgerald, Jonathan Keates, Blake Morrison and Robert Winder.


Because while he was standing there in the living room, wishing he didn't have to talk to whoever was on the telephone, I breezed right in on a blast of all that hot air, and instead of stopping politely in the living room, I kept heading down the hallway until I came to an open door through which I saw, in that dead grandmother's bedroom, which was pitch black except for a bit of light shining through the window from the night outside, something so awful that . . . I can hardly talk about it even now . . .

There was this hangman's scaffold there . . .

Yes. A scaffold.

Just what I said. I mean, at first all I saw was that the room was in this absolutely frenzied state. The bed was a mess, but really crazy, as if someone had gone berserk in it: the pillows were thrown everywhere, the sheets were ripped, there were books all over the floor, and the desk was littered with crumpled papers . . . but the worst thing, Mother, was the blinds on the big window, which were shut so tight there wasn't a crack in them. The blinds box above them was open, so that you could see the bare concrete and the unpainted wood, and in it, Mother, the belt was dangling from its rod - it was like the one in this room but wider and stronger-looking, yellow with two thin, red stripes down its sides - it was off the pulley and hanging free, with this big noose knotted at one end of it . . . You're laughing at me.

No, that is not all. Beneath it was standing a little stool, just waiting to be kicked away . . . everything was ready, I didn't have the slightest doubt . . . it couldn't have been more obvious . . . and if any more proof was needed, it was his own behaviour, because the minute he saw me follow him inside and head past him for that room, he went absolutely wild. He threw down the phone in the middle of a sentence and ran to stop me, to get me out of there, or at least to shut the door and keep me from seeing. I could tell by how frantic he was, all panicky and confused and I guess embarrassed too, that he realised I had understood everything, everything . . . are you listening, Mother?

No. Yes. I was already inside that dark room. I was too stunned by that scaffold to move, and he grabbed me from behind and tried wrestling me out of there . . .

Nothing. He didn't say anything . . . that's the whole point. If we had spoken to each other it might have been different. And by now I was good and scared too, not only because of this terrible rage he was in, but because I could feel he was naked underneath his bathrobe, although at the same time I knew that if I wanted to save him, I had to resist. And so, Mother, I wrestled with him and even tried grabbing the blinds belt and tearing it down, but he started dragging me out of there, pulling me toward the front door, and I knew that if I didn't dig in my heels by finding something to sit or lie down on, I would be outisde in a minute, out of the apartment and out of the picture. . . And so all at once I made believe, it was just a trick, I pretended to pass out in his arms, and he was so scared that he let go of me for a second, and I threw myself into this little armchair that was standing by the living room door. We still hadn't said a word to each other, because we were too dazed and surprised to, but when he saw me all scrunched up there like some kind of frog, he simply gave up and left me, he went back to the bedroom and shut the door behind him. . .

That was all.

How should I know? I guess he was waiting for me to go away.

(Photograph omitted)