Second Person Singular
By Sayed Kashua Translated by Mitch Ginsburg
Grove Press, 352 pages, $25
Sayed Kashua has built an impressive career exposing the porous and impenetrable, farcical and tragic demarcations between Israel’s Jews and Arabs. Readers of his weekend column for Haaretz may recall a caustic fable titled “Cinderella (Herzl Disappears at Midnight)” in which the hapless protagonist bears the burden of the answered prayer of a hitherto childless woman who “begged God for a son, even if he was born half Arab.” As an adult, Herzl Haliwa’s nocturnal metamorphosis causes endless angst. This long-suffering hybrid has constant explaining to do, especially to his Jewish girlfriend, with whom he never spends a single night. (After midnight, the “Haliwa” half of this bifurcated being craves the company of pro-Palestinian European tourists.) Nor does it help that “Herzl” quaffs wine while the Arab side indulges in heavy Arak drinking.
In this schizophrenic tale, Kashua’s young man navigates Jerusalem as both Palestinian Arab and Jewish Israeli, suggesting both an impossible condition and a vital bridge between polarized communities. Kashua’s third novel, “Second Person Singular,” revisits the serious issues underlying this mischief, recasting its doppelganger with greater insight in a novel that adroitly blends tragedy with dark comedy. In awarding the novel Israel’s prestigious Bernstein Prize, the jury praised its “complex look at Israeli society as a multicultural society.” Most intriguing was the suggestion by the Bernstein judges that, in portraying Israel’s Arab middle class’s struggles to assimilate, Kashua ironically reimagined the plight of Jews in Enlightenment novels.
Whatever Kashua’s actual intentions, “Second Person Singular” triumphs as a tragicomedy composed of two suspensefully intertwined stories tracing the lives of two unnamed Arab protagonists, illuminating their fraught condition as insiders and outsiders and their painful struggle to create a life of meaning. The first of the novel’s stories concerns a highly successful Arab attorney who lives with his beloved wife and children in Jerusalem. Despite the lavish evidence of his accomplishments and affluence, he anxiously purges any hint of his Arab village origins (Kashua himself left the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa for a predominantly Jewish neighborhood).
Harboring no illusions about the precarious nature of his ascent, he ruefully contemplates the service he and other Arabs of his class provide to the Jewish state: “Lawyers, accountants, tax advisors, and doctors — brokers between the noncitizen Arabs and the Israeli authorities… living within Jerusalem but divorced from the locals among whom they reside. They will always be seen as strangers, somewhat suspicious, but wholly indispensable. Without them who would represent the residents of East Jerusalem and the surrounding villages in the Hebrew-speaking courts and tax authorities?” Even as he relishes visiting “the most expensive sushi bar in the city,” he is tormented by the notion “that his life was a mirage that could suddenly melt away.”