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Don Futterman
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What remains of A.B. Yehoshua

The novels of the acclaimed writer who died a year ago manage somehow to offer sparks of hope amidst the chaotic despair
Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua in the documentary, 'The Last Chapter of A.B. Yehoshua.' (Courtesy/ New York Jewish Film Festival)
Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua in the documentary, 'The Last Chapter of A.B. Yehoshua.' (Courtesy/ New York Jewish Film Festival)

Read the opening pages of any A.B. Yehoshua novel and you know you’re in the hands of a master storyteller. Characters spring to life fully formed and the emotional stakes are always high. It’s as if you’ve slipped into a cozy narrative bathrobe, but one that jolts you with electric shocks. 

In Yehoshua’s first novel, The Lover (1977), we find out immediately that “our lover,” has gone missing during the Yom Kippur War. Why this peculiar appellation? Whose lover was he? Was he killed? Did he go AWOL?

Already on page one, we encounter another hallmark feature of a Yehoshua novel; an obsessive male protagonist driven by curiosity, by desire, by good intentions, by forces inexplicable even to himself, who proves incapable of controlling his meddling in other people’s lives, no matter how much pain or turmoil his actions cause. It’s a brilliant device for driving a plot forward. 

In this case, Adam, the owner of a thriving auto repair shop – the first of the novel’s rotating narrators – seems equally obsessed with finding the missing lover and finding the car he disappeared with. In addition to Adam, The Lover is recounted by Adam’s petite chain-smoking high school teacher wife, Asia, by Dafi, their 14-year-old insomniac daughter, by Naim, a 14-year-old Palestinian apprentice mechanic in Adam’s garage, and by Verucah, a 93-year-old-woman in and out of a coma. Yehoshua uses these multiple perspectives to expose the layers of Israeli society and the misunderstandings and obliviousness at the heart of all domestic comedy. 

Yehoshua experimented with point of view for 15 years, the cacophony of alternating voices leading him to be dubbed the Israeli Faulkner. This phase, which included A Late Divorce (1982) and Five Seasons (1987), culminated perhaps in the unique experiment of Mr. Mani (1990), Yehoshua’s own favorite, a historical epic told in reverse chronological order, in which each chapter presents only one side of a dialogue. The conversations inevitably involve tragic miscalculations of men in the Mani line, going back from Israel to the family’s origins in Greece. Since we hear the voice of only one character the reader must guess what the other party is saying.

After Mr. Mani, Yehoshua abandoned these experiments, adopting instead a mature third-person narrative voice that is confident and relaxed, comical and lyrical, and which marks several of his finest novels. 

Consider The Liberated Bride (2001), which focuses on Professor Yochanan Rivlin, an Orientalist struggling to explain the bitter Algerian civil war of the 1990s while fending off attacks from postmodern academic upstarts who dismiss his entire field – Orientalism – as an archaic colonialist construct. Rivlin is also trying to manage a clever Arab female graduate student, a Palestinian citizen of Israel from a northern village in Israel, who he knows is trying to manipulate him into giving her a passing grade for work she hasn’t completed. Starting with a brilliant comic montage of Rivlin, his wife and other Jewish colleagues at her wedding. Rivlin becomes increasingly enmeshed in the student’s life, all the while trying not to be suckered into playing the patsy. 

Like Adam in The Lover, Yochanan Rivlin is also obsessed, this time with discovering the cause of his son’s divorce. If these obsessions become exhausting to the reader – Rivlin invents increasingly absurd excuses for invading his ex-daughter-in-law’s privacy – that is part of the metaphor; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict comes to resemble the family chaos ensuing on a failed marriage, exacerbated by the inability of the flailing parties to let go. 

Yehoshua was uniquely gifted in creating allegories for the Israeli experience that feel organic, emerging from his characters’ dilemmas – or the quirky occupations he assigns to them. The head of an elevator design company in Friendly Fire (2008) seeks the source of mysterious sounds and disturbances in a building; the human resources manager at a large bakery in A Woman in In Jerusalem (2004) travels to Eastern Europe to return the body of a foreign worker and former part-time employee killed in a terrorist attack; a civil engineer in The Tunnel (2018) contemplates Palestinians in hiding and secret roads under Israel’s largest crater. Somehow, amidst the chaotic despair, Yehoshua finds sparks of hope.

Yehoshua has a wicked sense of humor and his comic view of life uplifts without ever cheapening his fiction, including his accounts of suffering and the utter strangeness of people in extreme situations. Yehoshua never dissects bad behavior from the lofty perch of judgment. He loves his characters, and that affection is contagious, whether they are damaged and powerless, or are pig-headed and self-destructive, even when their prejudice or blindness or insanity gets the better of them and they leave wreckage in their wake. The lives of his familiarly neurotic protagonists are turned inside out, but when Yehoshua mocks their pretensions, he does so with empathy rather than ridicule.

Unlike the late Amos Oz, his fellow literary lion, friend and peace activist, Yehoshua, who died one year ago this week at 85, was not Ashkenazi. Yehoshua’s mother immigrated from Morocco in 1932 and his father was a fifth-generation Sephardic Jew from Jerusalem. From his unique perspective, Yehoshua skewered all parties in Israel’s crucible of competing legacies; Jews, Moslems, Christians, Mizrachim, Ashkenazim, Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the Territories, ultra-Orthodox and secular. 

In the second half of his career, Yehoshua bucked the trend of contemporary fiction as an unapologetic advocate for marriage. In The Liberated Bride, for example, Rivlin’s wife Hagit is his equal, a district judge, who respects personal and social boundaries and provides the balance and ballast to Rivlin’s impulsive bullheadedness. 

Some version of this marriage – loving partners who can bicker to the point of exasperation, but care about each other deeply, are sexually vigorous and are best friends – recurs in all of Yehoshua’s later novels, even when one of the parties is no longer alive. Yehoshua acknowledged that these portraits were modeled on his own marriage to Dr. Rivka (Ika) Yehoshua, a psychoanalyst, who died in 2016.

Yehoshua’s last novel, The Only Daughter (2021), centers on 12-year-old Rachele Luzatto, the only daughter of a wealthy Jewish lawyer in northern Italy. The father is suffering from a brain tumor but insists on continuing on with his life, while the daughter ponders her father’s inability to separate myth from reality in his refusal to let her play Mary in the school Christmas pageant. I picture the elderly Yehoshua sending a message to his literary descendants, to his readers, while he struggled with terminal cancer, to continue to grapple with the place of Jews in the wider world, and to be strong without him, reminding us like Rachele’s father, that he’s not going anywhere – or at least, that his novels will remain.

About the Author
Don Futterman is the author of Adam Unrehearsed, published by Wicked Son. You can read more about Adam Unrehearsed at donfutterman.com. Don is also the Executive Director of The Israel Center for Educational Innovation (ICEI) and the Director of The Moriah Fund in Israel. He can be heard on TLV1’s The Promised Podcast, and on Futterman’s One-Man Show, a performance podcast of autobiographical monologues. He is the author of two children’s books in Hebrew, Ha-Otzar Shel Yaniv (Yaniv’s Treasure – Tal-Mai -2019), and Ad Lamala (Up and Over – Sifriyat Pajama - 2023).