The Liberated Author

In His Newest Novel, A.B. Yehoshua Returns to His Arab Characters

By Susan Miron

Published December 05, 2003, issue of December 05, 2003.
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The Liberated Bride

By A.B. Yehoshua

Harcourt, 568 pages, $27.

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From the beginning of his career, the Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua has examined the complex relationship between Israeli Jews and Arabs, most notably in his 1964 novella, “Facing the Forests,” and his early novel, “The Lover,” set in Israel after the l973 war. By the late l980s, however, Yehoshua deemed it impossible — at that moment in time — to portray an Arab as an independent, credible character, and declared he would not write about another Arab in the foreseeable future.

Eleven years after this pronouncement, Yehoshua began working on “The Liberated Bride,” which features two brides, an Arab and an Israeli, whose thoughts, actions and alibis become obsessions for the novel’s main character, Yohanan Rivlin, a Jewish professor of Algerian history at Haifa University. Yehoshua has written that he envisions this novel as a personal novel rather than a pointedly political one. “My intention was to examine the question of boundaries, in all its aspects,” he explained at a recent appearance in Boston as part of his book tour. “Starting with intimate, interfamilial boundaries, and then on to the political and social boundaries between the Jewish Israelis and the Arab Israelis, and also between the latter two, and the Palestinians.” The optimism Yehoshua felt when he was writing this book — which has since faded — is reflected in the trusting and amicable relations between the novel’s Arabs and Jews, who visit each other, attend each other’s festivals and weddings and try to speak each other’s languages. The result is an extraordinary novel, one that balances great charm and insight with a mordant humor all its own.

Described as “a pedantic Orientalist,” Rivlin is a historian obsessed with the need to discover — or uncover — the truth on two fronts. In his personal life, this leads him into a sometimes-comic quest to learn the cause of the abrupt end of his son Ofer’s marriage to Galya six years before. In his professional life, he attempts to develop theories about the underlying causes of the Algerian civil war with the assistance of his Arab graduate student, the “annoyingly ambitious” Samahar.

The novel opens at Samahar’s wedding in the Galilee, near the Lebanese border. Samahar, “a devious Arabic studies major,” had taken nearly every course that Rivlin has offered over the last five years. No sooner does she marry than she comes up with the first of a parade of tall-tale excuses for being late with a seminar paper. Afifa, Samahar’s mother, appears with her own excuse for not finishing her degree back in the l970s. (She was having her daughter!) It seems that everyone has convenient alibi or lie at some point in this novel, which at its heart is about Rivlin’s search for truth.

Consumed with jealousy and resentment at Samahar’s wedding, Rivlin is reminded of the cruel fate of his older son, Ofer, “the young husband rebuffed” by Galya for reasons Rivlin cannot possibly fathom. Both Ofer and Galya have pledged not to reveal the reason behind their breakup, and their vows of silence nearly craze Rivlin, who sees Ofer’s “banishment” from the marriage and Galya’s family’s hotel in which they lived as an eviction from paradise itself. In Rivlin’s dreams, Ofer appears “wounded and wretched,” and Rivlin yearns for Galya, liberated from her role as a bride after only one year, to set his son free. Ofer is aghast at his father’s intrusive and deceptive behavior toward his ex-wife’s family, meant only to solve the riddle of the breakup and, in contrast, views his mother as appropriately respectful of boundaries — something his father is “a world champion at crossing and getting others to cross.”

A brilliant observer of human nature and human frailty, Yehoshua presents the reader with at least a dozen incisive portrayals of people inhabiting multiple roles — as husbands and wives, as fathers powerless over their willful adult children, as lovers, and as academicians, judges and businessmen — all with complicated agendas.

I can’t recall another novel in which people were so ceaselessly on the move, from the moment the novel opens with Rivlin’s colleagues and their wives being bused to Samahar’s wedding. Samahar’s cousin, Rashid, “a citizen, albeit a displaced one, of the State of Israel,” is Rivlin’s irreplaceable ground transportation, moving Rivlin “across a dotted green line on the map that, imaginary demarcation, will be haggled over until the end of time.” Ofer, Rivlin’s “son-in-exile” (who has lived in Paris for four years working as a night guard at the Jewish Agency) and sister- and brother-in-law (who live in the United States) fly into and out of Israel for visits, and Rivlin’s wife suddenly must fly to Vienna for a trial. Rivlin expends great energy dispatching them all to and from the airport, prompting this observation about the new airport terminal, with its chirping cell phones, smell of burned coffee and “the happy-to-be-home-again faces televised on a closed-circuit screen for the benefit of the welcomers:”

Here, and here alone, the professor from Haifa reflected, was the erotic epicenter of the Jewish state. The Jewish heart might throb in Jerusalem, and the Jewish brain might grow sharp or soft in Tel Aviv, but the passionate focus of Israeli life was here, in the going and the coming. It took an Arab of the old school … to realize that what might seem to be Jewish solidarity, as displayed by the tall man coming over to tell him that his wife was on her way, was only Jewish hyperactivity.

As an Arab friend warns Rivlin, “You Jews are always coming and going. It will make you sick in the end.”

Meanwhile, professionally, Rivlin searches for literary harbingers from folktales written in the l930s and l940s to explain modern Algeria’s descent into violence, just as he searches for clues to the mysterious breakup of his son’s marriage. To help with his research, he asks Samahar to translate texts from modern Arabic that a Jewish scholar slain in a terrorist attack had collected. Could it be, Rivlin wonders, “that these tales, written long before the Algerian War of Independence, were the first foreshadowings of an ongoing dialogue between Algeria and a French conqueror-seducer that was both the country’s oppressor and its object of desire?” Rivlin is fascinated by the religious underpinnings of the stories, written at the time of the secular Algerian revolution.

Yehoshua spares no one in Rivlin’s department his wicked sense of humor, especially its “skullcapped department head” Ephraim Akri, who harangues the friendly Arabs at Samahar’s wedding with his “Theory of Arab Failure” and whose groans in his sleep sound to Rivlin “like a general protest at the sorry state of the Middle East.” Needling his junior colleagues, Rivlin marvels to the shrewd Ephraim, “you’re a true political animal. It’s a pity your talent is wasted on a small department like ours.” “It’s the only one I belong to,” Akri retorts.

Yehoshua, a “political animal” himself, has once again produced a work that is thoroughly inventive, hugely enjoyable and uncannily perceptive about the human condition. Had he not chosen to write, Yehoshua, I am certain, would have made a great shrink; there is little about the human heart that he doesn’t understand.

In a scene toward the end of the book, Tedeschi declines a trip to Ramallah with Rivlin, who asks him how, as an Orientalist, he didn’t want to meet real, live Arabs. Reality, Tedeschi retorts, is what he creates on his computer. “Real-life Arabs, let alone real-life Jews, make me too dizzy to think straight.”

Susan Miron is a harpist. Her CD of Scarlatti sonatas was recently released by Centaur Records.

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