Book Appreciation: A.B. Yehoshua’s “Mr. Mani” — A Great Work of Fiction
By Roberta Silman
A.B. Yehoshua was anything but a provincial Israeli writer. He was a literary giant whose imaginative gift was so striking and diverse that you never knew what he would do next.
Mr. Mani by A.B. Yehoshua. Translated from the Hebrew by Hillel Halkin. Harvest paperback, 369 pages, $12.95.
A few weeks ago A.B. Yehoshua, the eminent Israeli writer, died at the age of 85, and his many obituaries were respectful: Here was a wonderful writer who had an uncanny understanding of familial relationships, who left us with many novels and essays and plays, who was beloved by his compatriots and colleagues as “Buli,” his nickname, and who will be remembered for his evocative portrayals of both Jews in the Diaspora and Jews of Ashkenazi and Sephardi descent (he was a third generation Sephardi) who stayed in Israel where their love for their country was paramount.
For my money most of them missed the point.
To regard Yehoshua as a provincial Israeli writer or a Jewish writer is as silly as it would be to regard Faulkner, whom Yehoshua loved, as a Southern American writer or James Joyce as an Irish writer who started out writing “little Irish stories,” as Dubliners was once described to me when I was very young. Yehoshua was a literary giant whose imaginative gift was so striking and diverse that you never knew what he would do next. And when he published Mr. Mani in 1989 he was so far ahead of his time that ordinary reviewers did not know what to make of it and called it “too hard to follow.” Only Ted Solotaroff in The Nation recognized it for what it was: “Yehoshua’s most ambitious, visionary, and powerful novel … a marvel…. The Nobel prize has been given for less.” Indeed, since then I have been waiting for Yehoshua to be awarded that coveted prize. In vain. Thus, he joins the list of those who never got it, probably because politics — that villain whom we in America have come to know too well — played a part: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, Joyce, Proust, Colette, Woolf, Forster, Dreiser, Nabokov.
The best obituary that I have read so far was from the Australian Jewish News which said “One was likely to meet a raw exploration of a flawed but likable protagonist, a patient, humour-laden style, and a dark storyline that deftly held the reader to the page. The sentences were long and complex, nested with meaning, and the heart of the stories could often be found in dialogue.” And then it quoted the president of the organization Zionism Victoria, Yossi Goldfarb: “A.B Yehoshua’s passing is an enormous loss for the State of Israel, the Jewish world and indeed for the global literary community. He was a literary giant, often spoken about as a possible Nobel laureate, an activist and someone I’d consider as part of Israel’s moral conscience…. I was privileged to spend two weeks with him in the ’90s when he toured Australia, and I can also say that Buli was just one of the loveliest, funniest, and smartest people I have ever met. A total mensch.”
I have reviewed The Tunnel, The Retrospective, and The Extra for the Arts Fuse, and I love Yehoshua’s domestic novels, which reveal his sly humor and great intelligence and astonishing ability to get into a woman’s mind. For those of you who don’t know his work, I would definitely recommend starting with one of those: The Lover, The Liberated Bride, Five Seasons, A Late Divorce. And then go on to Mr. Mani, which can be read in different ways: as five monologues dealing with a member of the mysterious Mani family; as a history of the Manis; and also as a history of the Jews as they confronted world events, often war. But before we delve into that complicated book, well-deserved recognition for Yehoshua’s translator, in this instance and for many of his books, the redoubtable Hillel Halkin whose Hebrew — I am told by Hebrew speakers — matches the genius of the man he has translated.
Although I have called the five sections of Mr. Mani monologues they are actually halves of five conversations — the first on the telephone, and the rest in person — between a daughter and a mother in Israel in 1982, between a cruel German soldier and his grandmother on a hike in Crete in 1944, between an Anglo-Jewish soldier and his superior officer in Jerusalem in 1918 explaining the court case involving a recently caught spy named Mani, between a son and his father in Jelleny-Sad — near Cracow — describing a journey taken by him and his sister Linka to the Third Zionist Congress in 1899, and finally, a talk involving two other people, a dying rabbi, his wife, and their old friend Avraham Mani in Athens in 1848. We learn about 10 Manis, beginning with Eliyahu Mani, who was born in 1740, and ending with Roni Mani, who was born in 1983. What Yehoshua has done is work backwards, starting with the modern Manis and ending in 1848 when Avraham Mani, terrified that there would be no more Manis in the world, decides to impregnate his widowed daughter-in-law, thus ensuring that the family line will continue.
They are all seen within the context of history: the first three associated with wars — 1982 (Lebanon War), 1944 (World War II and the Holocaust), 1918 (end of World War I and the period soon after the Balfour Declaration which promises British support for the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine). The last two reflect the impulse toward the creation of a state of Israel ,which took almost a hundred years to accomplish:1899 (Third Zionist Congress) and 1848 (eruption of nationalist movements in Europe). Thus, we are given a history of a Jewish Sephardi family whose quirky, sometimes outrageous behavior upends the lives of the people around them. For the record, Yehoshua labeled his novel a work of “intergenerational psychoanalysis.” Which seems right, since there is a great deal about birth (one Mani is a doctor who has founded a gynecological clinic in Jerusalem) and love and death and suicide. One male character is obsessed with the idea of doing himself in; another, desperate because of unrequited love, walks in front of a train.
If it sounds complicated, it is. Moreover, Yehoshua’s choice of working backwards makes it even more so. I understand that choice, though it creates a book in which hope, beautifully evoked in the first conversation at the end of the 20th century, becomes increasingly diminished with each ensuing conversation in the past. The endurance of the Mani family — which is a stand-in for the universal Jewish family — is seen to depend on chance. The clan was often a hair’s breadth from extinction. Still, all is not confusion or dialogue. Drawing on postmodern strategies, Yehoshua gives us signposts to follow. Context is supplied before each conversation and, at the end, there is a “Supplements” section that completes the biography of each participant.
What makes the novel so unique is that each conversationalist has his own voice. It is interesting that, while combing through reviews, I found an enormous range of reactions. Each reviewer told readers what his favorite conversation was. The choices proved the adage, each to his own taste. For example, what one person found “flat and cumbersome” — the English soldier reporting the facts of the court case to his superior — was a conversation I loved. Here is the pitch-perfect voice of Ivor Stephen Horowitz revealing so much of himself while concluding his case for mercy for the Mani picked up as a spy in 1918:
. . .Was this, sir, the way British history in the Holy Land was to begin, with the hanging of a Jew in Jerusalem? And yet I had to ask myself if I would be understood,; and whether if I talked candidly enough to make myself understood, I would be suspected of divided loyalties. You see, sir, I’ve never sought to hide my Jewishness as have certain other officers in this division, not could I hope to do so given my name, my appearance, my eyeglasses, my low and protuberant rear end, and my presumptuous literary garrulousness that even an aristocratic Cambridge mumble been unable to dispel…. And so I was quite resigned to failure, perhaps even to severe reprimand; but I remembered what my mother always told me: “Never give up, son,” she said, “never be afraid as long as you know your intentions are pure”; which is how I put my case before you, sir; not merely as a soldier obeying orders, but as a subject of Great Britain, of the empire that rests assured of its approaching victory, of the war’s end, and of the glorious era that awaits us and the entire Commonwealth…
Which is how the Nazi soldier who parachutes from his plane like Icarus can, a generation later in the midst of World War II, “cancel” the guide named Mani in Heraklion and send him to his death in a concentration camp.
Another favorite conversation describes a madcap trip taken by Efrayim and his sister Linka Shapiro, from Poland to the Third Zionist Congress in Basel in 1899 — a story so madcap that it reminded me of Noises Off by Michael Frayn. The siblings are far from home, sometimes taken for husband and wife, but utterly wild in their newfound freedom, especially Linka. Here is the brother describing what happened on the first leg of the trip when they are in Warsaw:
All at once she had become the grand lady. You should have seen her holding her hand out for those Poles to kiss — that childish little hand stained with ink which her admirer from Warsaw put his lips to with unconcealed desire — she was laughing, she was all in a whirl — a once neatly closed little pocket knife that had suddenly sprung open with all its blades…
After fending off many more suitors as Linka travels with her brother and Mr. Mani in Europe, the three of them go to Jerusalem, where the Shapiro siblings discover that their Mr. Mani is actually a doctor who has founded a well-known clinic in Jerusalem (which appears in the first conversation in the novel almost a hundred years later). And that Dr. Mani has a mother and a wife and children. Linka works in the clinic, seeing birth and sometimes death up close and getting to know the Swedish nurse whose fierce loyalty to Dr. Mani is famous in the ancient city. She also gets to know the doctor even better, deciding to live with the family while her brother finds separate lodgings near the Jaffa Gate and explores Jerusalem on his own. It is in this section that we feel Yehoshua’s love for his native city. Here is Efrayim describing it on their final day there — during the long service on Yom Kippur:
—It is a light, Father, in which two different lights contend, a tawny, free-flowing one from the desert and a bluish one born from the sea that slowly ascends the mountains, fathering the light of the rocks and the olive trees on its way. They meet in Jerusalem—imbibe each other there—subsume each other there—and conjoin at evening into a clear, winy glow that settles through the treetops branch by branch and turns to a coppery red, which—reaching the tip of the window—inspires the worshipers to leap to their feet and bellow the closing prayer in a great wave of supplication that washes over the frozen world. . . .
That Yom Kippur ends with Linka and Efrayim deciding to start the journey home. To their surprise Mani decides to see them to the boat, and just before Mani insists on accompanying them to Beirut, Efrayim realizes that he and Mani “were engaged in a wordless struggle for [Linka].”
Here is Efrayim describing the end of their strange journey in a carriage in Beirut when he realizes that Mani’s desperate love for his capricious sister will end in tragedy:
“Why, here is our lost steed,” [Mani] said with a smile, putting Linka and me in the back seat, which was spread with a colorful Persian rug, and seating himself up front by the coachman, his broad back facing us like a threat, although one that was aimed at himself. For the first time since leaving Katowice and taking the night train to Prague, I felt Linka clinging to me for protection. She had turned back into a girl — the jackknife, Father, had sprung all its blades and was now neatly folded again. Are you listening?
Efrayim’s exasperation mounts as he tells his apparently inattentive father, in unsparing excruciating detail, the terror they experienced while watching Mani take his life before their very eyes. And acknowledges their part in this terrible act, whose description finally brings the father to tears.
So this is a book that requires close attention as it travels through time and geography. It might also be a great opportunity to take turns reading it aloud to appreciate every nuance. (I can see a family of five doing it — the rewards would be ample.). The tension and urgency that builds throughout Mr. Mani is quite amazing. It may feel like going to five exhausting one-act plays in succession. Still, by the end, which is actually the beginning, you will have a sense of Jewish history you could not have gotten in any other way. For this gifted writer’s vision of what it means to be a Jew and, by extension, a human being, will not only enrich your sense of what it means to survive the trials and tribulations of history. It will also become a source of strength as you and your descendants make your way through this sometimes treacherous path which we call, for want of any other name, the future.
Which is exactly what great fiction is meant to do.
Roberta Silman is the author of four novels, a short story collection and two children’s books. Her latest novel, Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review), is in its second printing and is available on Amazon and at Campden Hill Books. It was chosen as one of the best Indie Books of 2018 by Kirkus and it is now available as an audio book from Alison Larkin Presents. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for the New York Times and Boston Globe, and writes regularly for the Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com and she can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.