The Liberated Bride|
by A.B. Yehoshua/Translated from the Hebrew by Hillel Halkin
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by Olga Stein
Ignorance is bliss, the saying goes. In The Liberated Bride this simple equation is extended on each side to produce an array of additional thematic content. Most significantly, "ignorance" is innocence, and bliss is a state of grace denoting both life in paradise (the Biblical Garden of Eden) and conjugal happiness. In A.B. Yehoshua's novel, a newly-married young man, Ofer Rivlin, stumbles onto knowledge of vice and is expelled from paradise; his beloved bride rejects him, and he is forced to leave her close-knit family and the Jerusalem hotel they own and manage, and which serves as their place of residence.
The young man's father is Professor Yochanan Rivlin, the novel's central character. Five years have passed since his son's divorce, but Rivlin, never having received an explanation for the marital break-up, continues to agonize. He is genuinely disturbed by his son's apparent unhappiness, Ofer's inability to restart his life with another woman. At the same time, he deeply resents the personal loss of the opportunity to partake in the joys and fruits of a son's marriage. The novel opens with the wedding of one of Rivlin's female graduate students, the Arab Israeli Samaher. Rivlin, his wife, Hagit, and all the faculty of Haifa University's department of Near Eastern studies have been invited to attend the event in the small village of Mansura, in the Galilee. Despite the warm reception of this Jewish contingent, the sumptuous food and festive atmosphere, Rivlin is miserable. The good-natured Hagit is understanding, being well familiar with her husband's predisposition to gloom and envy at every wedding. She tries to coax him out of his self-pity but with little success. For Rivlin, all weddings are painful reminders of the paradise he had glimpsed, in the lush garden of his in-laws' Jerusalem hotel, on the night of Ofer's wedding, then abruptly and inexplicably lost.
Because Rivlin remains ignorant of the circumstances that brought about his son's divorce, for him the gates to paradise aren't entirely closed. When, by chance, he learns that Ofer's ex-father-in-law had just passed away, he returns to the hotel, against Hagit's entreaty, to express his condolences to the family he hadn't seen for five years.
Hagit, who is one of Haifa's district judges, respects Ofer's decision to keep silent about his divorce. The fun-loving, but principled judge refuses to trespass on her son's private life, and is intolerant of her husband's efforts to pry open the past by using any pretext to confront and interrogate his ex-daughter-in-law, Galya, and anyone else connected to her family. Rivlin, the head of his university department, a respected and self-assured pedagogue and scholar, adores but also fears his uncompromising wife. Afraid of provoking the judge to anger, he nevertheless continues to transgress and makes several excursions to the hotel over the course of the novel. What he's after-knowledge of what went wrong for his son and his bride-has been forbidden to him by both Hagit and Ofer. There is a mixture of the comedic and poignant in Professor Rivlin's fixation on a son's failed marriage and his furtive, impish determination to cross a boundary that others wish to leave unbreached.
There are all kinds of boundaries, borders and divides in this novel. Some, like the ethnic and religious differences between Israel's Jews and Arabs or the region's Arab Muslims, Arab Christians and Druze, are easily negotiated and, when not politicized, offer no obstacles to friendly, even intimate interaction. The wedding of Samaher is an affair where Jews and Arabs mix amicably, and where Professor Rivlin is treated as a loved and honoured guest. When he visits a second time to go over required course material with an ailing, bed-ridden Samaher, he's invited to take an afternoon nap in her Muslim home, and then a bath:
". . . in a remote Arab village, he happily went off to bathe, accompanied by two towels, a bottle of fragrant liquid soap, and a young girl, who had bee appointed to guard his privacy outside a bathroom door that would never, so it seemed, be locked or bolted."
Even territorial-national borders are porous-albeit in one direction only-and Jews and Israeli Arabs enter the occupied territories to attend cultural festivals, plays and poetry readings. On one such occasion, on the last night of Ramadan, in a small church in Zababdeh, which is part of "the newborn Palestinian autonomy", a Lebanese nun renowned for her exquisite renditions of liturgical hymns, recreates with her angelic voice a paradise on earth for every member of the audience-Christian, Muslim, and Jew.
Some of the boundaries in the novel are all too real, like the regulations preventing Arabs born in Israel proper but married to Palestinians in the territories from returning to live in their place of birth. Others are theoretical, the province of academics: a number of scholars in the novel attempt to overcome linguistic barriers by means of painstaking translation of Arabic texts; and cultural barriers through lengthy scrutiny of Oriental literature and history. Rivlin, an Orientalist, relies on both of these methods when labouring to overcome a discontinuity between two historic periods; he's looking to formulate a sociopolitical link between the massacres that took place in Algeria in the 90s and its more distant colonial past.
Whether real or postulated, many of the boundaries in the novel are either expedient or absurd in varying degrees, and Yehoshua never misses the chance to illustrate the hardships associated with the former, or to poke fun at instances of the latter. For example, he treats us to a conversation between Rivlin and a more junior academic, who asserts rather too confidently that all boundaries or categories-social and cultural-are artificial, merely the theoretical constructs of a ruling class (which includes scholars), aiming to subjugate all other members of a society by restricting their intellectual freedom.
The Liberated Bride is a gently-satirical novel, full of humour and empathy for human beings in unfortunate circumstances. One has the sense that what concerns Yehoshua is not the political but the moral logic shaping rules and determining boundaries. It is the erosion of moral logic that troubles him. Precisely this erosion and its ramifications-in both private and public spheres-is what he brings to our attention. There are no arch villains because for Yehoshua everyone is fallible, not least the obsessive Yochanan Rivlin whose selfish quirks and foibles are skillfully turned into a portrait of a caring father and a likeable man. Rivlin, unlike the more privileged reader, never does find out why his son's marriage collapsed, although his meddling initiates a series of events that ultimately assists his son in freeing himself from an unforgiving past.