A. B. Yehoshua

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"Friendly Fire"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple DEC 22, 2008)

"What was he fighting for?…Was it to reclaim the dignity of an engineer come from afar to be a cleaning woman in Jerusalem?  To let her know—her and whoever had loved her—that her suffering and death hadn't gone unnoticed because of anyone's callousness?"

Friendly Fire by A. B. Yehoshua

With Friendly Fire, A. B. Yehoshua, one of Israel's most honored contemporary novelists, creates a magnificent novel filled with real, flawed characters who come alive from the first page. The alternating narratives of Daniela Ya'ari, who is visiting her brother-in-law in Tanzania, and her husand Amotz Ya'ari, who remains behind in Tel Aviv, reveal their relationships to each other, their family, their culture, and ultimately their country. Daniela has been protected by Ya'ari (as he is usually identified) for her entire marriage, but she has traveled to Tanzania alone this time. Her older sister Shuli died two years before, while Shuli and her husband Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) were living in Tanzania, and Daniela, who has never really grieved, wants to come to terms with her death.

Yirmi has suffered a double loss. He has lost not only Shuli but also their son Eyal, a soldier who was killed in the West Bank by "friendly fire." Yirmiyahu refuses to return to Israel, wanting a rest from "the whole messy stew, Jewish and Israeli...a time out from my people, Jews in general and Israelis in particular." Working on a remote anthropological dig, he feels most at home with the African researchers.

Daniela's husband Ya'ari, who runs a Tel Aviv engineering company, needs to be in control, and his inability to control the vagaries of nature (and other people) frustrates him. In an unforgettably described passage at the outset of the novel, Ya'ari has been summoned to correct the unbearable moaning noises which emanate from an elevator whenever the wind blows, an engineering problem that Yehoshua actually manages to make exciting. Ya'ari is also facing family issues involving his elderly father, his son Moran (who has repeatedly refused his call to army reserve duty), Moran's gorgeous but irresponsible wife, and their two unruly children.

The action, which takes place during one week, opens on the second day of Hanukkah, the eight-day "festival of lights," with each chapter representing one of the eight candles. Though Ya'ari and Daniela observe the holidays, Yirmiyahu, in Tanzania, prefers the "friendly [camp]fires" of the dig in Africa to the "friendly fires" of the Hanukkah candles. Ya'ari's children are also less observant. The use of fire as a symbol sometimes combines with religious symbolism. Daniela discusses with Yirmi the Book of Jeremiah (Yirmiyahu), a prophet who predicted God's judgment on Jerusalem. Yirmi read it, ironically, after Eyal's death in Jerusalem by "friendly fire," and when he then read the Song of Songs, a book about the fires of love, the contrast overwhelmed him, and he gave up organized religion forever for the animism of Africa.

Friendly Fire goes beyond Israeli and Jewish issues to touch on universal issues affecting all of humanity. Intensely realized, thoughtful, and stunning in its unique imagery and symbolism, this unusual novel deals with seemingly everyday issues, offering new insights into the human condition--life, love, and death--while fire serves throughout as a universal symbol of man's humanity and his evolutionary differences from the rest of the animal world. Readers familiar with Judaism and Israeli history may appreciate some aspects of this book more than other readers, as may those who practice a strong religious faith, but Yehoshua is so skillful at developing rounded characters that most readers, regardless of background, will find them memorable, if not touching, as they deal with their everyday lives. (Translated by Stuart Schoffman.)

  • Amazon readers rating: 5 starsfrom 10 reviews
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"A Woman in Jerusalem"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple DEC 28, 2006)

"What was he fighting for?…Was it to reclaim the dignity of an engineer come from afar to be a cleaning woman in Jerusalem?  To let her know—her and whoever had loved her—that her suffering and death hadn't gone unnoticed because of anyone's callousness?"

A Woman in Jerusalem by A. B. Yehoshua

A Jerusalem bombing results in the death of an unidentified forty-eight-year-old woman, after she has been comatose for two days.  Unvisited at the hospital during the last days of her life, she remains, unmourned, in the local morgue for more than a week, until a pay stub finally traces her to the bakery where she worked.  When an aggressive newspaper reporter breaks the story of the unmissed and unmourned employee, the bakery's eighty-seven-year-old owner is both embarrassed by the publicity and furious at the story's accusations that the woman was treated callously by the bakery's management.  For the owner, an apology on behalf of the company is not enough.  He assigns the human resources manager to find out who the woman is so that "a more tangible expression of regret from himself and his staff, a clearly defined gesture" can be made on her behalf.

The resources manager investigates the background of the woman, who was unknown to him, even though he had apparently interviewed her for a job, and he soon discovers that the woman, Yulia Ragayev, a mechanical engineer from Russia, worked as a member of the night-time cleaning crew in the bakery.  She had left her job the month before the bombing, a fact that comes as a welcome relief to the resources manager, since this means the company has no responsibility, but further investigation shows that though she was no longer employed, she was still collecting her tiny salary.

The mystery of the woman's identity and how and why she came to Jerusalem soon develops into a touching love story involving her time at the bakery.  At the same time, the resources manager becomes obsessed with her, learning about her life and her dreams, visiting the shack where she lived, and coming to "know" her.  Yehoshua cleverly draws in the reader by creating empathy for Yulia, showing details about her life in Jerusalem and those she has loved who have abandoned her.  He uses symbolic details to set off the action, creating parallels and contrasts—the warm, homey smell of the bakery contrasting with the horrors of the bombing, the abandoned doll of a barefoot monk in Julia's shack providing a touching parallel to the cold poverty of her own life.  

Serious thematic questions arise:  Who is responsible for Yulia in Jerusalem?  She herself?  Her employer?  The people who knew and liked her?  The government in Jerusalem?  Her family back home?  No one?  And if she is not solely responsible for her own life, how much, if anything, does anyone else owe to her? 

Continuing newspaper publicity, all negative, leads the bakery owner to insist on memorializing Yulia and to seeing that she has a dignified funeral, and he eventually assigns the resources manager to escort her body back to the Russian village she came from so she can be buried there.  The timid human resources manager soon learns more than he ever bargained for about Yulia, life, bureaucracy, and ultimately, about the human resources he himself possesses. 

Wonderfully dark humor gradually emerges from the ironies that occur on the Russian journey, with Yehoshua emphasizing the continuing absurdity of life.  The hostile newspaper reporter ("the weasel") and his photographer ("the snake") accompany the resources manager and the coffin on the plane to Russia, forcing the resources manager to examine his mission at the same time that the reporter and photographer reveal their own not-always-honorable motivations.  Transporting the coffin from the airport to the bleak Russian steppes, they use the only vehicle available--a demobilized armored personnel carrier.  The manager is forced to pay bribes, both to the authorities and to Yulia's family, to accept the coffin, and as he travels farther and farther into the bleak interior of the Russian steppes, a terrible winter storm approaches.  The manager spends time living underground while the coffin remains unburied, out in the open. The action soon develops into a full-scale slapstick comedy of noir elements, with the manager announcing that "Atonement was turning into lunacy." 

With an ending that readers will celebrate for its perfection, Yehoshua brings the action, themes, and characters full circle, showing the growth of the human resources manager, his pragmatism (learned on the trip), and his awareness of the larger mission with which he was entrusted.   This novel about "a dead temporary resident who believed in Jerusalem more than Jerusalem believes in itself" is certainly one of the best and most satisfying novels I've read all year, an absolute delight. (Translated by Hillel Halkin)

  • Amazon readers rating: from 20 reviews


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About the Author:

A. B. YehoshuaA. B. (Avraham "Boolie") Yehoshua was born in Jerusalem in 1936. He is one of Israel's pre-eminent novelists and has been awarded the prestigious Israel Prize for his lifetime's creative contribution to Israel, the Koret Jewish Book Award, the National Jewish Book Award in the U.S., and the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize in the U.K.

He studied literature and philosophy at the Hebrew University and began a teaching career. He taught in Paris from 1963 to 1967. He joined the faculty of the University of Haifa in 1972.

From the end of his military service, he began to publish fiction. He became a notable figure in the "new wave" generation of Israeli writers. They contrasted with the social concern of earlier writers by focusing on the individual and interpersonal.

He lives in Haifa and is a senior lecturer in literature at the University of Haifa.

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