Portraying Inner Conflict of Israeli-Arabs

Sayed Kashua's Novel 'Second Person' is Singular Triumph

By Ranen Omer-Sherman

Published April 24, 2012, issue of April 27, 2012.
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One day, after purchasing Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata” in a used bookstore, the lawyer discovers a cryptic note written by his wife. He assumes that it alludes to a torrid love affair. The lawyer is driven mad with jealousy, and his frenetic efforts to prove his wife’s duplicity result in alarming emotional cruelty. Yet even in the midst of his violent revenge fantasies, we glimpse the vulnerable longing for what he callously rejected.

He wanted to go back to his old room, the cold room he had shared with his three brothers, the thin mattress and the sheepskin that his mother would put under it for insulation during the winter. He wanted to go back to the village, to his parents’ house, his real home.

Beyond this plaintive longing for authenticity, Kashua’s frequent intertextual nods to Tolstoy’s tale of sexual obsession and murder (which the lawyer unwisely defers reading) strategically nudge the reader to think beyond stereotypes of the “primitive Arab” and to the dark and universal comedy of the human condition.

The second plot follows the journey of a young Arab whose ambitious transformation from nebbishy social worker to artistic success entails a startling act of erasure. Like Coleman Silk in Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain,” he forsakes his origins to pass as a Jew. As home caretaker of Yonatan, a young man reduced to a vegetative state, the Arab’s fascination with the alluring artifacts of his patient’s former life — books, music, clothing and especially his photography equipment — sets the stage for his self-reinvention as a Jewish artist trained at the Bezalel Academy.

The young man accomplishes this with the unlikely support of Yonatan’s beleaguered mother, who tells him that he and her son are “practically identical,” whereas he is spellbound by her iconoclastic “scorn for tradition, nationalism, religion, roots… she believed that the Arabs did a bad job of impersonating the Zionists, who did a bad job of impersonating the European nationalists.” But what first appears to be a story of empathy and compassion becomes something quite different, as Kashua ingeniously unravels incremental rationalizations as they lead to terrible betrayals. As is that of the lawyer, the artist’s life is such a carefully calibrated performance of suppression that in the end he seems utterly lost to himself. In Kashua’s imaginative exploration of the consequences of self-erasure and betrayal, the intricate interplay of both stories renders a powerful statement about the ambition, desire and loneliness inherent in all human nature.

In Mitch Ginsburg’s lively translation from the Hebrew, Kashua’s razor-sharp wit and irony are on full display. As in both of his previous novels, “Dancing Arabs” and “Let It Be Morning,” Kashua proves an incisive guide to the simmering tensions of class, politics and generation within Arab-Israeli society, and between Arabs and the hostile majority. Yet whereas “Let It Be Morning” prophesied the dystopian nightmare of the Kafkaesque state turning against its Arab citizens, “Second Person Singular,” while not altogether relinquishing that fear, offers a more measured assessment of the quotidian nature of Jewish and Arab interactions. Much more than in previous works, Kashua examines life as a struggle against the destructive forces within the individual, even while bearing unsparing witness to the corrosive ethnic pressures and xenophobia of Israeli society. And the disquieting denouement in which these troubled men’s lives finally intersect is storytelling of the highest order.

Ranen Omer-Sherman is a co-editor of the forthcoming “Narratives of Dissent: War in Contemporary Israeli Arts and Culture” (Wayne State University Press).


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