History Comes Rushing In: An Author Interview
Last week, A.B. Yehoshua sat down with the Forward to discuss “The Liberated Bride,” his ambitious new novel weaving together influences such as William Faulkner and S. Y. Agnon along with “One Thousand and One Nights” and “The Dybbuk.” A soft-spoken yet passionate speaker, with a shock of gray hair and lively, deep-set eyes, the 67-year-old author calls to mind none other than a composite of his own best protagonists. The author of seven novels and two story collections, Yehoshua has been referred to as Israel’s Faulkner. His early works were set very much in the moment, almost as if history and the past had little bearing on character and motivation. But beginning with “Mr. Mani” (1982), Yehoshua has been exploring the effects of history and family through the fulcrum of his characters’ consciousness. In “The Liberated Bride,” the engagement with history and the past is even more pronounced, as the characters attempt to use history to plot a course of action that will take them beyond the current political crisis to a more hopeful future.
Robert Rosenberg: I was struck while reading the novel that history came rushing in on you.
A.B. Yehoshua: I first sought the tool of history in 1982, during the Lebanon War, a time when I began to conceive “Mr. Mani” and when I felt that I no longer understood my fellow Israelis. To go and try to conquer Beirut and impose peace on Lebanon, this was a crazy, crazy idea! And to understand my people, I needed to go backwards to some crossroads in Jewish, in Zionist history. This also coincided with the death of my father, a researcher and author of 12 books on the Sephardic community in Jerusalem. His dying, together with the war, obliged me to go back to history. This was the beginning of my engagement with history, which continued with “Journey to the End of the Millennium.” And finally in this book, by making the main protagonist a historian.
Rosenberg: Jerusalem figures so prominently in all your work.
Yehoshua: Jerusalem is always a factor, a place where I have to go to load myself with energy — bad and good. Jerusalem is a place of conflict, the place where we connected our circulatory system to that of the Palestinians by annexing East Jerusalem and releasing the poisons spreading on both sides.
In the short novel that I am now writing, Jerusalem is present also. It is a very bizarre, very macabre novel, unlike “The Liberated Bride,” which was written with a certain optimism. It was in 1998 when I started and the relationship with the Arabs was … I don’t mean to romanticize it, but there was hope for peace. And then suddenly in 2000, when I was two-thirds finished, the intifada began. But what I’m writing now is quite gloomy and macabre. I cannot avoid it.
Rosenberg: This book has fewer of the stylistic experiments of your others. But it is dreamlike and has many influences: Faulkner, of course, but also Agnon—
Yehoshua: In this novel, I returned to some of the Agnon way of thinking and dealing with people. This is why there’s a tribute to Agnon by the novel’s protagonist’s visit to his house. But you are right that Agnon is very present here … Also, I opened this book up more widely to my autobiography. In my other novels, I had not been so generous in bringing details from my life. Of course, the biography of the writer is always a part of his work, but I didn’t want to bring obvious and recognizable things. Here I was more open — not in the main story, the story itself is not autobiographical — but in some of the details. So it is in a way more chaotic, a less disciplined kind of a book.
Rosenberg: Who is the liberated bride in the novel? There are so many.
Yehoshua: Yes, exactly. There are at least three brides: Galya is a bride, Samaher is a bride and the wife of Tedeschi is a bride. Galya is liberated from Ofer, Samaher is liberated from Rashid and also Hannah Tedeschi is liberated from her husband when he dies. But no one will liberate Hagit from Rivlin. They are really well married.
Rosenberg: It’s similar to the marriage in “Open Heart” (1996) between the head of the hospital and his wife, that desire to do everything for her and to make life rich and filled with sensuality.
Yehoshua: Yes. When my French editor was reading the book, he said: ‘Oh, you have introduced something new in the married life.’ And I said to him: ‘This is the most wonderful compliment that I could get from a Frenchman.’ Because, you know, the French examine the world through the relations between men and women, just as the British always examine the world through the difference of classes — while we the Jews are preoccupied all the time with the problem of identity.
Rosenberg: Arabic, as a language, is an important element.
Yehoshua: I wanted Arabic present here. The playing with the language, and the language is important in the novel. So that when Rivlin addresses the Arab characters in Arabic, he is making the statement: ‘You will not fool me.’ And Akri, the head of the university department who speaks Arabic very well, says: ‘I know the Arabs, I know exactly what is in their minds.’ Understanding the Arabs is one of the issues of the book — but also in life and for America today in Iraq.
Rosenberg: Since you mention Iraq, what has the United States gotten itself into? Is it possible that the U.S. may find itself an occupier, similar to Israel’s position in the West Bank?
Yehoshua: At least there are not any settlements. You’re not sending Southern Baptists to settle in Iraq! America is paying the price of unconditional — and even neurotic — support of Israel. You cannot imagine how many people in Israel would be grateful if America pressured Israel to put an end to the settlements. The settlements are a kind of a drug Israel has become addicted to. And the Arabs are furious with America about this unconditional support with regard to the settlements. Military bases can be removed. But civilian settlements must expand beyond borders.
The idea of borders is one of the issues of the novel: borders in families, between a father and a daughter, between a man and his wife. And, of course, the moral examination of the border: How far do you go beyond the border with your son in order to help him? This examination of borders is central because Zionism is firstly all about borders and goes against our Jewish tradition of crossing borders. The Jew is the great expert of ordering the nation to cross borders. Because his identity is in his head and he can be anywhere.
Rosenberg: The Algerian and North African stories that Samaher is translating for Rivlin—
Yehoshua: I invented these stories. But I was especially proud of this story of the anti-Camus Stranger because Camus’ “Stranger” is a key work of modern literature, the cornerstone in the literature of alienation. Still, why did a Frenchman have to kill an Arab? If you are killing from absurdity, kill a Frenchman! And so the Arabs respond with their own absurdity — and this absurdity is one we’ve seen clearly in the last few years.
Rosenberg: All the characters are trying to understand the Arab mind — not just Rivlin, but also Suizza’s father, who can’t speak Arabic.
Yehoshua: I think this is the task of all of us, to understand the Arabs. Someone was saying to me that the Arabs hate the Americans because the Americans don’t understand why the Arabs hate them [laughs]. So we have to understand them in order to get along with them. And to find a way.