There is so much I want to tell you about Sayed Kashua's Second Person Singular, but how much is enough to make you want to pick the book up for yourself and read it, but not too much to give all the best parts away. And there are lots of best parts. This is a story best appreciated in how it unravels naturally on its own. I promise not to give away spoilers but I am going to tease you just a little bit with the story. This isn't just a good story, it's a pretty amazing construction on a variety of levels from the jacket illustration (which suits the story so well) to the complex multilayered story told from two very different perspectives that offers so much to think about.
Sayed Kashua is Arab-Israeli who is immensely popular in Israel for his fiction, his journalism as well as for the TV show Arab Labor (now running into four seasons) that he created. Kashua happens to be living in the US at the moment, but in Israel he has a most interesting, though to my eyes, also challenging place in society. Arab-Israelis have a very unique situation that is both filled with advantages and pitfalls. They are Israeli citizens and enjoy the same opportunities as their Jewish counterparts, yet they are Arabs and so must deal with a certain amount of distrust and prejudice. They can move about the country with more ease than Palestinians and have more opportunities for work, travel, education, etc., but I imagine they walk a fine line between both groups not being entirely of one or the other. We discussed what it means to be Arab-Israeli in some detail in my class, and it was impressed on me just how complex Israeli society is and how nuanced the gradations between ethnic groups.
It's these complexities that Kashua deals with in his fiction and on the TV show, and he does it with humor using satire and always with a very light touch. This is the world he knows intimately and if you are at all curious about it, Second Person Singular is a most opportune work to begin with. The story revolves around a note found in a book. The note is playful, hinting at a potentially romantic encounter with the hopes of something more. It has neither signature or name of recipient and no date to hint at when it was written. It was folded away and inserted in the pages of Tolstoy's novella The Kreutzer Sonata. The book was just purchased by an up and coming young lawyer who reads to try and better himself. How fitting that in the pages of a book about an adulterous affair ending in murder that this note is found, and how curious that the handwriting happens to be that of the lawyer's wife Leila! But how did it get there, and when?
The lawyer is never named. From the first you get a sense that he is a happily married man with liberal ideas, very yuppified down to his expensive car and suits, daily cappuccinos and weekly salon evenings with other young urban professional couples. His story is told in third person and faced with the prospect or possibility that his wife has cheated on him he goes a little mad. So much for the idea of raising his children to be open minded and progressive. He becomes obsessed with trying to find the truth of the matter. He knows only that the book belonged to someone named Yonatan before it ended up on the shelves of a used bookstore.
Yonatan is the key to the story. He never utters a single word throughout the entire book yet his physical presence and impact on the other characters is immense. I'm still thinking about Yonatan and I have more questions than answers at the moment. Yonatan links the lawyer with a young social worker named Amir. Amir tells his part of the story in first person. Amir's story is sadder in some ways--the son of a 'collaborator' from a northern village, he moves to Jerusalem to study. He's mild mannered, maybe a little bit of a pushover and a tiny bit of an oddball but the journey he makes from start to finish is going to be a very long one--not just physically but psychologically, too. The two men's lives are going to cross paths in a very interesting and unusual way, one that is quite surprising, and hugely clever, I thought. Are you curious?
It's how these lives intersect that I most want to tell you about, because Kashua pulls it off so brilliantly, but to do so would ruin the pleasure you are going to have in reading this story (am 'virtually' pressing a copy of this book into your hands--it's that good--I want you to read it, too). I will say this is a story that plays with stereotypes, uncovers them, questions them and brings them out into the light. With the precision of a surgeon Kashua dissects this paradoxical world and the ways in which Arab-Israelis choose to live or in some cases are forced to live.
This is a story that is in great part about identity. How does one live and live well, succeed as an Arab-Israeli in (Jewish) Israeli society? Imagine trying to construct your life and image in a society where your own history is not the same as that of Israel. Your language isn't the main language, how you study and what you study, how you dress and how people see you is all not exactly your own, but to really succeed you need to make it your own, or find a way to live within it--too keep your own identity while learning to live in another culture almost. How Kashua tells this story is genius, I thought. The book has a most interesting cover illustration. The book is surely Tolstoy. And the two men? Perhaps not exactly who you think they are. Nicely done from the cover illustration on.
Sayed Kashua is already one of my great finds so far this year. And yes, I will be reading more of his work.
Second Person Singular is translated from the Hebrew (Kashua speaks both Arabic and Hebrew as do most Arab-Israelis--and he happens to write in Hebrew, which I found quite interesting) by Mitch Ginsburg. The translation is excellent by the way--it's a case of you forget you are even reading a translation. The language is smooth, though this is such a foreign world to me--you definitely know you are reading about a different culture even if many of the larger themes are common to people the world over.