Have you ever read a novel where you thought 'this is a story that could only happen within the pages of a book'? Of course I'm not counting the obvious choices like science fiction or dystopian novels where you know you are in an imagined world. I'm thinking of a story set firmly in the here and now (or the here and now of when the book was written) that is made up of both the realistic and the slightly fantastical. I've spent the last week immersed in the world of A.B. Yehoshua's The Lover (Ha-Me'ahev in Hebrew and translated by Philip Simpson). Maybe it was the intensity of the experience, but once again an author has floored me.
Yehoshua is an amazing writer. I wasn't exactly expecting to like him, but I always appreciate a well written story. He's one of Israel's most important 20th century literary figures whose works have won awards and whose views have stirred up controversy. While I can't tell you much about his personal life (and isn't a work meant to stand on its own?), I can say how impressed I am by his storytelling abilities. It's been a while since I have been so lost in a story that when I came up for air I felt completely disoriented in the real world. It's taken me a day or two to even engage with another book, with some other story.
Published in 1977 The Lover was Yehoshua's first book, and it was also the first novel written by a Jewish author portraying an Arab character speaking in first person. The story takes place against the backdrop of the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and is actually narrated by six characters, each with a very distinct and engaging voice. It took a little time and effort to separate each 'voice' and keep everyone straight, but once I did, there was literally no turning back. I am not sure I could have picked up this book five years ago, or even one year ago and enjoyed it as much I did now. But the time is apparently ripe for such a 'dreamy' sort of story.
Dreamy may not be the right word. For me there was a dreamlike quality to the story, however. The Lover of the title is an Israeli man who has been living in Paris for many years. He hears his elderly grandmother is dying and has returned 'home' (can a country still be called home when one has lived away for so very long that his home now feels foreign to him?) to collect his inheritance, part of which he expects will be a 1940s Morris automobile. The car is rusty and in need of tuning. He thinks a simple screw needs to be replaced and takes it to a auto repair shop. It's a far more complicated job and by the time the car is up and running the bill has risen to astronomical proportions. The owner of the garage takes pity on him and brings him home with the idea that he can perhaps work off part of the bill. He begins doing translation work for the owner's wife, who is a teacher. The inevitable happens and the two begin a love affair. While not especially discreet, it's presented quite subtly.
And then war breaks out. Egypt and Syria attack Israel on their most important and holiest religious holiday, Yom Kippur. The country is taken entirely by surprise and immediately soldiers go to join their units. Every capable man is expected to go. And what of the Lover who is Israeli by birth, even if not any longer by choice of residence? He is urged to go and sort things out with the military, not expecting to have to go and fight. But against all expectations he is sent to the front lines and falls of the map and disappears. Surely he has not died in combat. Where is he, however? That is the question, or one of them at least, at the heart of this novel. It's almost a mystery that must be untangled. It is the garage owner, the husband who brought (however unsuspectingly at first) this Lover home to his wife. And it is the husband who goes in search of him--a seemingly inexhaustible search.
Yes, I mentioned the novel is a fair amount of realism mixed in with the fantastical. Or better to say the hyper-real? Would this ever happen in real life? Would a man become so utterly obsessed with locating his wife's lover? The saying goes--truth is stranger than fiction (which makes you wonder what people's provate lives are really like after all). It's a testament to the author's skill and talent that even with such an unusual plot, it could still be so wholly absorbing. But that is only skimming the surface. It's how he achieved what he did that impressed me. Yes, there is this strange quest, but what I liked most was the picture of life in Israel ca. 1973. This is a place that has always been a mystery to me. A place of filled with so many contradictions and complexities of people and attitudes and religions and ideologies. Perhaps it is these complexities that has made me shy away from reading about it.
But in the space of some 350 pages and through the voices of six (often disparate) characters you get a view into this world. Each voice mostly moves the story foward, though, sometimes the narrations overlap or tell the same scene from varying perspectives shedding light on how people think and feel, what they believe (for good or bad), how they see each other and themselves. It felt to very authentic. And this is what floored me. In case you're curious--the voices (I feel like telling them to please come forward, stage center and take a bow, so real did they become for me) are Adam (the husband), his wife (Asya), her Lover (Gabriel), their daughter (Dafi), an Arab boy who works in the garage (Na'im--perhaps my favorite character), and Verducha (Gabriel's grandmother).
I could say so much more about this story (maybe more about the historical significance of the events portrayed, or the characterization of persons and their personalities and perceptions, or perhaps the construction of the story and writing style--all impressive--but this post is already too unwieldy). So, I'll just leave you with this--if you want a challenging but very rewarding read, one that might just floor you, too, do give A.B. Yehoshua's The Lover a try.