||A Millennial Author: A.B. Yehoshua interviewed by David Solway
by David Solway
Born in Jerusalem in 1936, A.B. Yehoshua is a major voice and presence in what Israelis call the "generation of the State". A 6th generation Israeli, whose forefathers came at the start of the 19th century, he is one of Israel's pre-eminent novelists and numbers among his various works The Lover, The Continuing Silence of a Poet (short stories), Five Seasons, Mr. Mani, Open Heart, Journey to the End of the Millennium, The Liberated Bride, and most recently, The Mission of the Human Resource Man. He received the Israeli Prize (in 1995) along with numerous other national and international literary awards and prizes. Facing the Fires, a volume of interview conversations conducted by Bernard Horn, appeared in 1997 with Syracuse University Press and is highly recommended for those with an interest in Yehoshua's work.
This interview was taped under somewhat difficult circumstances. Yehoshua was speaking extemporaneously in what is for him a third language, after Hebrew and French.
DS: For the benefit of readers who have come to your oeuvre late in the day, would you provide a brief overview of your work in fiction-your major ideas, intentions and preoccupations?
ABY: I wrote short stories for a long time, until the age of forty, before I came to do novels. At first, my short stories were grotesque, Kafkaesque, abstract, with a sense of the absurd, very much influenced by Kafka, by Bruno Schultz, by Shmuel Agnon, and I have to say that these short stories very slowly acquainted me with the art of fiction. As you may understand, writing a short story is very near to writing a poem, though of course poetry is the highest art. But short stories have to use the language in a more suggestive way and not as an instrument, as many people are doing with the language of the novel. The first volume I published was almost totally detached from time and place and you could not have known if it was Israel, or even what the period was.
The second volume got closer to the reality in Israel but always kept this sense of absurd, abstract situations. Then I went on to write plays because I wanted to get out of the "I" who dominated the short stories and to introduce new characters, but still in the way of drama, in the way of dialogues. So I wrote plays, which were reasonably successful, but it was easy writing, far too easy writing.
Still, being a real playwright demands many things, more than writing a novel. You can easily name great novelists of the 20th century, but if I'd ask you to name the same number of great playwrights, of the stature of writers like Faulkner, Joyce, Virginia Woolf, it would be very difficult. Anyhow, I decided to write novels, but it was also in the mode of exchanging monologues, contained in a series of small chapters. I started with The Lover, in which six characters exchange points of view involving the war of Yom Kippur. That was a real a national trauma.
Then little by little I wrote another novel, Late Divorce, which emphasised the language of each character. In The Lover, the language was a little bit too uniform. In Late Divorce, I wanted to enter the psychological world of the characters. Then I started writing Mr. Mani, but I stopped for a while because I thought it was a bit too difficult. Next I wrote Five Seasons. The novel is about a widower, a year after the death of his wife, and how he manages to return to life. This novel is considered by many people my best. I think myself that Mr. Mani is the best, but of course there are different opinions about it.
My feeling was that Five Seasons was a kind of epic, and that the story was quite funny. When I look at my writings, I see that it is always from Five Seasons that I squeeze some of the juice. As for my present writings, I am amazed by the curious things about it and by the distance-the very accurate distance-between the conscious and the unconscious, and by the way in which the reader is introduced to the character, sees what the character doesn't see, but also what that the character knows in his unconscious. There is a subtle play between the reader, writer, and the protagonist, and between the different layers of consciousness.
After Five Seasons, I went back to Mr. Mani, which is my most audacious novel. It was my way of touching history. I am living with history, and I wanted to try to understand the history of Zionism from the Oriental angle and through some of its most important crossroads-starting from 1848 to 1982, and then back to earlier times. But the main trick of this novel is the movement from the present to the past. It is composed of five conversations, each involving a different Mr. Mani in the line of generations-from son to father, father to grandfather, etc. And in each conversation, like in psychoanalysis, we hear only one person and the reader has to recreate, to guess, as it were, what the other protagonist is saying. This novel attracted a great deal of critical attention. Two books of scholarly articles have been written about this novel because it employs some original, innovative literary techniques.
Then I wanted to write a love novel without any political references. This was Open Heart, a love story between a young man and an older woman. Soon I was indulging again in history, with The Journey to the End of the Millennium, which was not very well accepted at first because in Israel there is no literary tradition of historical novels. But this changed eventually. The novel is about the confrontation between two Jewish communities during the Middle Ages-an Oriental community of Tangier and an Ashkenazi German community-in dealing with the question of the legitimacy of bigamy. Recently, an opera was made of it, and it was magnificent.
Then I went on to The Liberated Bride, and to the next book which is now being translated into English as The Mission of the Human Resource Man. It is something more abstract, more absurd, and in a way resembles my first works. The mission in question is to identify the body of a non-Jewish factory worker, who is the victim of a terror attack, and who remained anonymous in the hospital before dying. The protagonist is asked to identify her and bring her back to her family in her homeland. The novel is about falling in love with a dead person. It moves from a condition of bureaucratic alienation to a revolution of the heart.
Ten of my works have been made into films, generally not to my satisfaction. But I hope that The Journey to the End of the Millennium and Late Divorce, for which I have written the script myself, will be better.
DS: Jonathan Shainin, in an article in The Nation, defines your recurring theme as "a disruptive guest from the Diaspora". Would you care to comment on his remark?
ABY: I am very much concerned with the question of the Diaspora. If you want to understand Jews, you have to ask the question, "why have the Jews been a diasporic people for the last 2500 years?" What is the reason for choosing the Diaspora as a way of life when no one imposed this choice on them? What is there in the Jewish identity that attracts them to the Diaspora, which is not their own country, their own structure, their own language. This is the theme of many of my essays-how the choices we make, or don't make, always seem to lead to the problematic question of our identity. I am a very practical person and I look for solutions. I am thinking about solutions to the problems of the Jews. After the Holocaust we have to examine with profound care this choice of life in the Diaspora, the choice that led us to the terrible catastrophe that has never before in history been visited on a people.
DS: Your work has often been compared to Faulkner's-family sagas, multiple perspectives, a strong sense of region and so on. Do you think this comparison just? Which writers and thinkers do you count among your most important influences? And do you feel a connection of any sort to certain celebrated Jewish writers of the Diaspora, for example, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth?
ABY: The most important influence is Agnon and I'm very sorry that the literary world is not well acquainted with this great writer. This great writer is for us what Pushkin was for the Russians. He's very important, a pluralistic writer, a magnificent storyteller who influenced many writers in Israel. You see some traces of him in the last book of Amos Oz, in Appelfeld and many, many others. He was my first influence, by his style, by the way he was playing with many meanings in apparently simple situations.
I was also influenced by Camus and existentialist or absurdist writing. Of course Kafka was very important for me, and then I discovered Faulkner. But I think he's the most important writer of the 20th century, considering his ability to combine myth, epic history, new literary structures, experimental effects, and of course his profound psychological insights. I also like the personality behind the writing.
About the Jewish writers in the Diaspora, I don't have an inclination towards the writing of Philip Roth, who surprisingly has no audience in Israel. As for Saul Bellow, he has this wonderful ability to integrate intellectual things in his writings, and to combine this with a cast of marvelously comic characters and predicaments. I knew him also personally and we became, until his death, how to put it, some sort of friends.
DS: Could you comment on your relationships with some of the other important post-1948 Israeli novelists, such as Aharon Appelfeld and Amos Oz?
ABY: About Israeli writers, I have to say that we started together-Oz, Appelfeld, Yehoshua Kenaz-as a group called the State generation, and we have been longtime friends. I maintained the closest friendship with Amos Oz and Yehoshua Kenaz. I appreciated what Appelfeld was doing in the 50s, 70s, and even in the 80s, but I think that in the last years he has been repeating himself. Also, in his way of thinking about Jews, about Israel, it seems that we're totally opposed to each other ideologically.
With Kenaz and Amos Oz, the relations are really warm. These are family relations, too. Kenaz is a really a good friend. With Amos, we argue about nuances. We we are very close in our Zionist conceptions and share the same position in the spectrum of the left, in the peace camp. But we are very different writers. A couple years ago we wrote a memorandum indicating what we had stolen from one another. There is competition and envy between us but still a good warm friendship. In order to achieve political goals, we have to link arms.
DS: You have contended that the "root of antiSemitism", in a recent essay for the journal 2000, is generated by the virtual, flexible, and fluid elements of Jewish identity. How have you tackled this idea in the development of your fiction?
ABY: Only once in Mr. Mani I tried to describe this pathological interaction between a German soldier and a Jew from the point of view of the German. I would not dare to describe an anti-Semite from inside. It's really too difficult for me.
DS: The Liberated Bride presents the reader with a highly sympathetic view of the Palestinians, with respect to their sagacity, patience, loyalty and creativity. But the novel was published in 2001-which means, of course, that it was written sometime in the late 90s-before the Second Intifada was well under way. Would the genial views of your protagonist, the Orientalist professor Yoachanan Rivlin, have been modified by subsequent events?
ABY: First of all, you're exaggerating in claiming that I've given all of these qualities to my Arab characters, who are Israeli Arabs and not Palestinians. Of course the Intifada was a surprise-not only to me but to the Israeli Intelligence. The irrational behaviour of the Palestinians perhaps surprised even the Israeli Arabs. This is what Rivlin mentions in the last chapter of the book, in his conference about the late professor Tedeschi. He wanted to understand the signs that will predict what will happen to the Arab world. I wouldn't say I modified my writing after the Intifada. About the Israeli Arabs, my feeling is that during the Intifada, they were loyal to the State most of the time, even though they were very critical and angry about its behaviour. Still they know the limits of modus vivendi with us, and I was very proud when they told me I described my Israeli Arab characters with empathy, but not without criticism. They are real persons and I describe them as I would describe Jewish characters. So I would not modify my writing.
DS: In an early short story, "Facing the Forests", your elderly Arab interlocutor, who is significantly mute, sets fire to the forest which is being guarded. I'm reminded in this connection of those lines from the Yiddish poet Mordecai Gebirtig from his most famous poem, Undzer Shtetl Brendt ("Our Town is Burning"): "Don't stand by, brothers, put out the fire-/our town is burning." Looking toward the future, do you see a conflagration raging out of control in the Holy Land, or can a part of the forest (or town) be rescued from the flames?
ABY: "Facing the Forests" was written in 1962, years before the Palestinian question entered the political consciousness. The question was not one about burning the forest; the question was about admitting that there was an Arab village-the question is about the mechanism of repression. When a society doesn't want to know about the past, then the past will leap up like a fire in its face. In this story, nobody knew what the Palestinian identity was. The question of the refugees was not yet a burning question. The story was prophetic in a certain way. I know the Arabs like the story because they see how the forest is burning in the end, and that nobody gains anything from the situation; the ruined village will not be restored, and both sides will remain with their share of the destruction. But this mechanism of repression must be confronted in order not to have "black holes" in our memory and our identity.
DS: As a professor of literature at Haifa University, do you see the subject or its mode of presentation as being "politicised" in the context of current events? And what has been the impact of the scourge of political correctness as in so many universities around the world? I'd also like to know if literary study in Israel has been infiltrated by postmodern theory, another of its most relentless enemies.
ABY: A professor of literature? I'm not a real professor of literature; I'm a writer who was appointed professor, but I don't pretend to be a real professor, knowing all the theory and so on. What I do is interpret texts, according to certain elements, as for example, the plot in the novel, psychoanalysing the potential of a text, or the nature of literature under the shadow of the Second World War, or examining how the stream of consciousness is at work in a literary text. It's good to have one or two writers in the literature Department, in order to let the students know about the cuisine, to demonstrate what are the options that could be mixed into a literary text, and why the good writer didn't choose some of them. So instead of being critics of restaurants, we are witness to the cuisine itself. Of course there is a lot of "pluralism" around. Of course the postmodern theories were entering the universities, but I think that now we are approaching a sentiment of "enough of it". I still believe in the older conceptions of literature-being about the process of identification with a character in the novel, and about the moral aspect of the text. Of course we have leftists in our university, also extreme leftists, but there are relatively few and they are more realistic and more moderate than the theoretical leftists in western universities. The problem is not the left and their postmodernity. The problem in our country is the religious. This is the real problem. We are struggling all the time against the leftists and the postmodernists, so we don't see the major danger of the religious extremists-how they speak against the Arabs, how they now fight against Sharon. All of us are wasting too much energy on the group of postmodernists and we don't see the conservatives in our midst, the Christian fundamentalists, the Baptists, Bush going on this adventure in Iraq, and so on. I feel the injustice in our society. We are becoming worse than America, with wide economic disparities between people. This is what upsets me in a country that had started at least with equality between the classes. The economic gap is becoming enormous and this is what disturbs me.
DS: In one way or another, the Zionist question remains at the forefront of your work and thought. In an article for The Jerusalem Post, you visualise a possible, healthy resolution to the paradox of Jewish identity as it involves the issue of religious nationalism. This resolution entails what you herald as "the incipient weakening of the legal connection between Jewish religion and Jewish peoplehood." Could you expand on this notion?
ABY: About Zionism, of course, it preoccupies me very much. My feeling is that Zionism was an amendment to the Jewish problem, especially after this terrible failure of the Holocaust in which we lost six million souls. After this failure we have to think about Judaism from the beginning. How did we fail to foresee the danger of life in the Diaspora and how did we utterly fail to prepare ourselves? What is wrong? Why are we still under threat? We have to think about how to repair this unique combination of religion and nationality. My solution (which is not only mine of course, it is everywhere) is that nationality and religion should not be connected legally. You can be Dutch even if you are a Jew or a Muslim. We enjoy this separation between religion and nationality everywhere. If it's good for everyone, then why not for us? The secularism of the Jews that began 200 years ago was already the starting point of this separation, but we have to enact a legal separation as well. Legal separation means that a Muslim and a Christian can be a part of the Israeli nation, especially in the framework of Israel, just as a Jew can be a Frenchman. Muslim or Buddhist Canadians can be a part of the historical Canadian people, and so on. This is a very delicate operation, but I believe that in the future, when Israeli Arabs will be able to glide slowly from their Israeli citizenship towards Israeli nationality, it will be a great thing. Some Arabs, for instance, the Druze, have already glided into our nationality through citizenship. It's not a revolutionary step, but it is a step-by-step, slow movement, which will enable us to cope better with the threat of a bi-national state. If the Israeli Arabs know that the door is open to enter and to be full members of our nationality, this fact will improve the relationship between the majority and the minority. I have to say that this is a vision of the future, and of course there are many elements that get in the way of this process, but at the same time the process is also progressing. We now have Christians who are part of our nationality, the Druze are part of our nationality. In the future we will have a Druze who will be Chief of Staff, just as we see a Jewish Prime Minister in France or a Jewish Foreign Minister in England. This is an excellent process of normalisation, as it was in the era of the First Temple. It is not a new thing. The creation Moses on Mount Sinan, the theoretical fusion between a universal religion and nationality, did not work in the period of the First Temple, and could work only in the Diaspora where Jews are not living in a total Jewish reality. Now we have to restore the First Temple spirit very carefully, very slowly. And then in the Diaspora, there will be Jews who are Jews both by their nationality and by their religion, and there will be Jews only by virtue of religion. We are not afraid of this. We are nearly six million in Israel, and we can be more with the Diaspora, but we have first of all to think about ourselves, how to keep the Israeli identity, which is for me the total Jewish identity.
DS: Israeli poet Haim Gouri, who is regarded as one of the living symbols of national reconciliation among a splintered people, has observed that "it's better to live with complex contradictions than to castrate your identity." How would you parse or construe this observation? Does it make sense to you?
ABY: You can leave this contradiction intact if it doesn't kill you and if it doesn't contain moral contradictions. I don't castrate my identity, I change it. The Jewish identity was considered as a purely religious identity, and we discovered 200 years ago that this identity can actually admit secularism. But to discover potentials in your identity is not castration-you can at the same time be in love with your contradictions. If on the other hand these contradictions are suffocating you, then it may be better to resolve them. But you'll have to pay a moral price for it.
DS: You are what I would call a "millennial writer"-one thinks of A Journey to the End of the Millennium which is set in the year 999, or the generations of the Manis in Mr. Mani, each "conversation" taking place at a crucial juncture in Jewish history. The Liberated Bride defines the moment before all chiliastic hell broke loose in Israeli towns and cities, and The Mission of the Human Resource Man touches on the issue of terrorism. Where do you go from here?
ABY: Well, I'm now trying to write a novel about an older couple. You know that I'm very fond of the idea of marriage and very much connected to my wife, so I will tell you a secret. I haven't spoken to anybody about my new novel-in-progress, which is called Friendly Fire, subtitled Duet. But nobody wants to read about a person in his seventies, so my protagonist is in his sixties and his wife is 57-as you see, very respectable ages. And they're separated for one week, only one week. And this is what I will leave you with.
DS: Thanks, Abraham. I hope we can continue on some other occasion.
ABY: Yes, when you come to Israel.