The Passion Play of Death by Todd Hasak-Lowy
A. B. Yehoshua is one of Israel's truly world class writers. Born in Jerusalem
in 1936, Yehoshua published his first short story collection 1962. Since that
time he has published eight novels, as well as plays and non-fictional essays.
Yehoshua's novels engage Israeli and Jewish history in inventive and surprising
ways, and his new novel, A Woman in Jerusalem, set in Israel during the
difficult days of the Second Palestinian Intifada, is no different. In addition
to winning just about every literary prize in Israel, in 2005 Yehoshua was named
a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, putting him in a group that
included five Nobel Prize winners.
Yehoshua recently made headlines here and in Israel after giving a talk at an
American Jewish Committee event in which he questioned the limited natureof a
diasporic Jewish identity, a stance Yehoshua has held for years. This opinion is
neither trivial nor, for us American Jews, something easy to brush aside. But
since Yehoshua earned such a platform for his views on Jewish identity in the
first place thanks to his fiction, in this interview I sought to put his
creative work back at the center.
I translated Yehoshua's answers from the Hebrew. Finally, I should mention
that Yehoshua's publisher in the States, Harcourt, also published my short-story
I want to open with what may sound like a rather small, if not trivial,
question. A Woman in Jerusalem is well over 100 pages shorter than any of your
six previous novels. Is there, to your mind, any significance to this fact? Does
the shorter length have anything to do with an urge on your part to quickly
write and publish something about life in Israel during the Second Intifada?
Initially, this novel was intended to be a novella, and that's how I
approached it while writing. Because it exceeded the length of a novellaand in
the course of writing, its hidden religious essence became apparent to meI call
the work a passion. Not a novel and not a novella, but rather a passion, that is
to say a combination of desire and suffering. Between death and rebirth.
The sociological and political matter of life in Israel during the time of
terror attacks in no way came up as a subject in this work. It also wasn't my
intention to deal with any side tied to the conflict with the Palestinians. The
subject was the journey from alienation and emotional apathy towards obligation,
responsibility, and love. Thus in regards to this work's limited objective, I
think that in a certain sense it's actually too long, not too short.
This novel reminded me in numerous ways of your much earlier writings. For
instance, the steady tension in this novel between the particular and the
universal, which over time produces a nearly allegorical effect, reminded me of
many of the short stories you wrote decades ago. Also, in terms of the story
itselfmuch of which revolves around the arduous task of burying a woman
physically present in her coffinI couldn't help but wonder if As I Lay Dying by
William Faulkner, a writer you regard as an important influence, wasn't in the
back of your mind when you wrote this. Did you feel in writing this novel that
you were returning to some of the modes and even influences that informed your
earliest fiction? If so, why?
Yes, there is no doubt that in writing this novella, elements from my earlier
writingthe short stories and the novella Facing the Forestsreturned. For
example, the crucial fact that I did not give people names, but rather left them
in their function, such as the journalist, the manager, and the consul,
was done in order to emphasize that they did not enter the story by means of
their biographies, their past, or their ideology. Rather, an external event
forces them to come up with a practical response to their feeling of guilt, real
or imagined, and estrangement from the anonymous woman killed in the terror
attack. Therefore, the characters appear as they do in somewhat abstract and
surreal works, when a certain shadow lays over them, like the characters in
Kafka, Beckett, and Camus. This is done in order to prevent an excess of realist
richness from disrupting the symbolic elements or the unusual movements of the
plot. At any rate, the protagonist here truly falls in love, in a platonic way,
with the dead woman whom he now intimately carries, without ever seeing her
There's no doubt that the journey of the dead mother in Faulkner's As I Lay
Dying and the burial journey in the novel The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred
Years by the Soviet writer Chingiz Aitmatov were legitimate sources of literary
inspiration for the journey of this cleaning woman's coffin from Jerusalem to
the village where she was born.
Many of your novels treat reality in contemporary Israel, and in this regard
your new novel is no different. But how was writing about Israel during the
second Palestinian uprising different from, say, writing about Israel following
the 1973 Yom Kippur War or the War in Lebanon during the 1980s? More
specifically, the first stage of the Second Intifada appeared to create a mood
of almost unprecedented confusion and despair among many Israelis. Did you feel
the need to respond to this in your novel?
Yes, the Second Intifada created confusion, despair, distress, and anxiety
like we had never known before. In the wars there had always been a clear enemy,
while soldiers fought. We knew where the battle lines were. We also knew what
was just and was not just about our position in the Yom Kippur War, and we knew
(I did, at least) what was so unjust about our war in Lebanon. But here
everything was turned upside down. The enemy was not defined; one time he's a
young, frustrated Palestinian from a refugee camp, but another time he's a
father of three who was familiar with and worked in Israel and decided to carry
out a suicide bombing in a café or on a bus. It could also be a female student
who took a test in the morning and came to kill herself in the afternoon in a
supermarket. The astonishing fact was that a terrorist could be so undefined and
unexpected, just a Palestinian who decided on his own accord to carry out the
attack, and could penetrate, in the absence of a border, to the very heart of
Israel, and cause such vast killing through his suicide.
Saddam Hussein's 40 Scuds in the Gulf War and all the Kassem rockets that
have been fired at Israel since the withdrawal from Gaza haven't killed a single
Israeli civilian. Whereas a young Palestinian woman killed herself in Maxim, a
restaurant in Haifa (where we often eat), and killed 30 people all at once,
injured dozens of others, and wiped out entire families. In addition to this,
the weapon of suicide bombing is so desperate that you aren't even left with the
possibility of taking revenge or punishing anyone; the terrorist is killed along
with his victims, his blood mixing with theirs.
For the first time since the War of Independence we faced massive civilian
casualties. We always knew how to honor fallen soldiers. They were killed for
our sake, they went out on our mission. But how are we to mourn a random man
killed in a terrorist attack while sitting in a café? How do you mourn a
housewife who got on a bus and never returned? They weren't our agents, they
didn't die in our place. Indeed, we could have been killed exactly like them.
And so what I noticed with alarm during these difficult years in Israeli society
was a sort of intense effort to repress the meaning of these absurd deaths.
Because people did not know how to absorb these deaths or how to mourn them,
many started passing quite quickly back to the regular daily routine. A café is
destroyed, the dead are removed, the injured taken away, the damage is repaired,
and after a few days the café is up and running like usual. A bus is blown up,
the dead are cleared away, after a couple hours the scorched vehicle is removed,
the road washed, and life along the street returns to normal. There is a brief
report on the news, and afterwards your regularly scheduled programming. The
heart becomes hardened and indifferent so that you can carry on life normally.
And it's like that on the Palestinian side, too. They themselves don't get
emotional about the killing of our civilians, and we don't get emotional about
the killing of their civilians. Once all of Israel would be shocked when a
Palestinian boy was killed by an errant bullet, and now eight children are
killed in a targeted assassination and no one in Israel really cares. And they,
too, see the pictures of our dead children in our streets and they rejoice
happily in Gaza or Nablus.
The events of this novel begin with a suicide bombing, yet there are no
significant Palestinian or even Israeli-Arab characters in the novel. Moreover,
the victim of the bombing is a non-Jewish woman from an unnamed, distant land,
where almost half the novel is set. Did you know, when you sat down to write
this novel about the violent conflict at the center of contemporary Israeli
life, that so much of it would take you away from the land and the people at the
center of this conflict? Why write about the present conflict only to take it in
such an unusual, and decidedly unrepresentative, direction?
I wanted to split open this repression of death, which seems to me not just
dangerous, but also leading to negative consequences when it comes to other
types of social repression in response to the suffering of others in society. I
felt an obligation to insert my writer's pen into the black plastic that
surrounds the random victims who are sent to the Institute of Forensic Pathology
in Abu Kabir. Therefore, the question isn't the relations between the
Palestinians and the Israelis, as there is no effort here to examine the
question of Palestinian terror against the Israeli occupation and its
settlements. This isn't the subject of the book, which is, rather, the
repression of death, the apathy, and the quick return to normal life. In terms
of plot, Yulia Rageyev could have also been a foreign worker killed in an
accident at work, only no one knows where she's from or to whom she belongs.
Under the conditions of globalization, things like this are a daily occurrence.
And this is the emotional trajectory in the bookfrom bureaucratic
indifference, from detachment toward the different and marginal in society, to
concern, moral responsibility, and even love for these anonymous dead. Thus this
isn't a book that deals with a specific Israeli problem, but rather a book that
addresses, through an Israeli example, modern society, the anonymous terror of
the killer and the killed. It addresses a beautiful woman whom the manager
accepts for work without paying attention to her or her beauty, and now that he
is bringing her corpse in a coffin back to the village of her birth, he falls in
love not with her, since that is no longer possible, but with the idea of her.
Here Plato's Symposium came to my assistance.
Thus from the opening I adopted a removed, abstract, impersonal tone. The
manager is an everyman of sorts, and like in medieval plays, people here don't
appear to embody their psychology. Instead, they represent the social and
conceptual forces that struggle inside them.
While Hillel Halkin, as usual, has done a masterful job translating your
Hebrew into English, the title of this translation, A Woman in Jerusalem, is
radically different from the original Hebrew title, which, translated literally,
would be The Mission of the Human Resources Manager. It's not hard, in terms
of marketing, to figure out why your publisher may have wanted the new title
over the original. But how do you feel about this change? I'm guessing that,
overall, it wasn't your first choice, since it's so different, but were you able
to find some consolation in the features of the novel this new title emphasizes?
This novel has already been published in Italy, France, Greece, Hungary, and
Holland, and will soon appear in Germany and Spain, as well. In each place the
original title was kept, more or less. Only the Americans and the British firmly
demanded to change the title, because they feared that The Mission of the Human
Resources Manager would be seen as a type of instruction manual for people
working in human resources. I agreed to this change painfully and with great
difficulty, and now that I'm reading the first reviews of the book in England
and America, I'm starting to get used to this banal title that, admittedly, also
gives expressions to something real and true in my book.
This is a question I've wanted to ask you for years: One of the things I've
always enjoyed about your books as a general reader, but which has given me
considerable trouble as someone who also teaches and writes on them, is the way
in which your fairly straightforward plots are shot through with odd details or
techniques that call out for, but at the same time resist, interpretation. In
your new novel, I see this tendency, to give just two examples, in the constant
focus on the beautiful Tatar eyes of Yulia Ragayev and her family, and in
those brief passages scattered throughout the novel narrated by various
anonymous first-person-plural collectives. How do you understand these
particular features of your new novel? More generally, when you're writing and a
strange feature like any of these surfaces, do you summon it, or does it simply
appear? If it simply appears, how do you decide if it belongs in the story?
The most difficult and complicated part of the writing process is the
beginning. Sometimes it takes me four months in order to write the first three
pages, to decide on the right tone for the prose, on the personality of the
protagonist, on the time frame, and mainly on the length of the work. Once I
feel that all the instruments are properly tuned, and I have a protagonist and
the beginnings of a story, which is always built out of an initial conflict, I
need to know more or less what the ending will be, but I don't need to know how
I will reach to this ending, how the protagonist will be convinced to reach this
ending. And here a less-restrained writing dynamic commences. Strange elements
that first appear in supposedly random fashion start taking on meaning along the
way. I always write in order. I don't jump or skip around. Even when I'm having
difficulty with a scene, I stand still and dig in until I've solved it. Despite
the fact that I know about specific scenes that will come 20 pages later, I
don't write them, because I don't want to close them up. I hope that on the way
to them I'll happen upon additional elements that will enrich that scene.
Sometimes the addition of this or that detail revealed to me during the process
of writing will prove important to a scene that I already understood.
I very much want to write a literature of integration. I think that this is
literature's obligation, to provide, through the plot and the framework, an
integration of things that in life appear random or completely chaotic. Thus,
people are drawn to interpreting my works, because they feel that things are
connected, that they're not random. Even things that appear strange at first
glance. Sometimes I myself am amazed at how elements are brought together in
ways I hadn't considered. I admit that sometimes this creates artificiality,
sometimes it seems my integration is forced on the fluid, living, random
substance of life.
But if you're asking about the Tatar shape of Yulia Rageyev's eyes, I took
this from Madame Chauchat in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. In general,
Thomas Mann was the hidden source of inspiration at a few points. Yulia
Rageyev's son is a double of sorts for Tadzio, the Polish boy from Death in
Venice. Also Plato's dialogue, Phaedrus [which appears in Death in Venice],
serves as a point of inspiration for the journalist's interest in Plato's
Symposium. Since it was necessary to characterize the dead woman, who isn't
present, through something special, I took the shape of the Tatar eyes in order
to give Yulia Rageyev an especially feminine and erotic uniqueness. Madame
Chauchat, a Russian from The Magic Mountain, is the mysterious character that
magically attracts the young Hans Castorp.
Finally, I've purposely focused my questions here on your fiction and not on
the recent flap over the controversial comments you made a few weeks back in New
York. While I don't want to ask you to talk about those comments or ideas
specifically, I am interested in hearing how you understand the relationship
between A. B. Yehoshua the writer and A. B. Yehoshua the public intellectual.
Without asking you to subscribe to some postmodernist view of identity, is there
any reason we should not think of them as simply the same person? Put somewhat
differently, are you the same man when you sit down to write as you are when you
stand up to speak before an audience of 500 people?
I'm a very energetic and restless person. But when I sit at my writing table
to write my fiction, I have great patience. When I teach literature at the
university, I'm patient and focused on the nuances of the text. But when I give
lectures on ideological matters, I try to be methodical and logical, but also
forceful, in order to convince people who are difficult to convince. I often use
metaphors and parables in order to explain what I mean. Of course, with my
Jewish brethren, I get annoyed easily. Ultimately, these are the arguments of an
intimate family. Overall it's the same person. Sometimes I get annoyed with
myself that I stray from my writing table in order to give lectures on the
subject of Jewish identity. But Jews love when you reprimand them for ignoring
Israel, because I'm constantly flooded with requests to speak to groups of Jews
from America and other places. After the (unnecessary) tumult erupted in America
and Israel following what I said, people from the American Jewish Committee once
more are inviting me to participate in their closing panel in Israel.
Todd Hasak-Lowy is a professor of modern Hebrew literature at the University
of Florida and the author of the short story collection, "The Task of This
Translator." This interview was first published at
JBooks.com in June 2006, and is reproduced with permission of the editor.