A Novelist Defends Zion’s Idealists

Mandrakes From the Holy Land

By Aharon Megged

Translated by Sondra Silverston

Toby Press, 220 pages, $22.95.

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In an impassioned 1994 article in Ha’aretz, Aharon Megged, one of Israel’s most accomplished novelists, suddenly permitted himself to address in his own voice the disdain with which many of his colleagues are given to treating their own country: “Since the Six Day War, and at an increasing pace, we have witnessed a phenomenon which probably has no parallel in history: an emotional and moral identification by the majority of Israel’s intelligentsia with people openly committed to our annihilation.”

Although many were surprised by this cri de coeur, coming as it did from an 85-year-old former kibbutznik and longtime supporter of the Labor party, close readers of Megged’s fiction recognized in it the writer who has often used his characters to touch on the same curious feature of Israeli life. For instance, in the 1996 novel “Avel” (“Iniquity”), Levinstein has his poem rejected by every Israeli editor because of the warmth it expressed for the country: “Love of the land, its expanses, its skies, its contiguity, is forbidden love. It is sinful! It is permitted to speak of those only with cynicism and irony.”

In his latest novel, “Mandrakes From the Holy Land” — which appeared in Hebrew in 1998 and has just been published in English — Megged once more brings his considerable artistic powers to bear on cynicism’s clash with Zionist idealism. This time around, he achieves this by inviting us to look through the clarifying lens provided by a visitor from an simpler era.

The visitor is a 31-year-old devout Christian named Beatrice Campbell-Bennett, who in 1906 leaves Bloomsbury society for Palestine to paint flowers mentioned in the Bible. She’s moved by the higher power she sees revealed “in tiny petals and thin trembling stamens among whose calices bees hover to gather pollen.” As her task implies, the religious and the sensual lie close together in Beatrice’s heart, and the beautiful landscapes she tours awaken in her religious and erotic ardor alike. Ultimately she desires both to purify herself and to find mandrakes, the Bible’s aphrodisiacal love flowers.

Along the way, and accompanied by Beatrice’s sense of wonderment — sometimes verging on ecstasy — we are treated to a vivid tour of Palestine: Jaffa’s “restless, kaleidoscope spirit”; Jerusalem’s sun, “shattering against its stone walls, shining in myriad slivers from its domes and minarets”; Zichron Yaakov’s majestic view of the forested Carmel hills; the Sea of Galilee, resting “with divine serenity in the cradle of the mountains encircling it.” In fact, Beatrice is sometimes so overwhelmed by the beauty that she can only describe it by appealing to the most exquisite paintings of Titian, Giotto and Simone Martini.

No small part of the land’s beauty, however, resides in its strong Jewish inhabitants, like the real-life agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn and his kind family. In a letter to her friend Vanessa Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s sister, Beatrice contrasts such figures with the sterile, talk-filled Bloomsbury drawing rooms she left behind:

Did we become “better” people in our daily lives after these profound discussions of the essence of “the good”? Were we in any way “more honest” after our discussions that praised honesty and censured Victorian hypocrisy? Here, on the other hand, in this group of “pioneers” … “the good” and “honesty,” which are not spoken of at all, are actually realized in their relationships to one another and in their aspirations to create a communal society.

As the book comes to a close, however, its shade darkens considerably. Beatrice is apparently raped twice, 20 days apart, once by an Arab interpreter and once by a Jewish farmer. This causes her to believe that she will give birth to twins. “I can already feel them… the way Rebecca felt Esau and Jacob stirring in her womb.”

I say “apparently” because the entire book is framed as a collection of letters and diary entries collected by psychologist P.D. Morrison, whom Beatrice’s London parents hire because they fear for their daughter’s sanity. Throughout the novel, Megged rather unconventionally lets Dr. Morrison interrupt, uncomprehendingly and condescendingly reducing Beatrice’s affection for the Jews she meets to “a reaction to her father’s anti-Semitic views,” her spiritual feelings to “hallucinations caused by latent hypersensitivity” and her rapes to self-delusions. This clash of sensibilities is the novel’s lungs: inflate, deflate. Where she sees beauty — natural and religious both — he notices only ugliness.

The effect is something like the one made by the deep cultural current to which Megged alludes in his Ha’aretz essay. Writers buoyed by this current habitually interject into Israel’s narrative the view that the Jewish state was born in sin, diagnosing its idealisms as so much self-justifying cover for colonialist oppression and dispossession. Wrapping themselves in clinical detachment, they often cast themselves as sophisticated purveyors of the ugly truth to dreamy, myth-mongering romanticizers.

Megged’s reply, itself disclosed in beautiful language, is that truth does not always reside in ugliness and that Israel’s truth is not always ugly. Like Dante’s Beatrice, Megged’s Beatrice, the naive outsider in search of beauty, stumbles on something profound. In her search — which is in fact a subtle gift of guidance — we learn something about Megged’s quest, and Israel’s.

Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is associate editor of Azure.

A Novelist Defends Zion’s Idealists

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