Confessions of a Good Arab
Black Box and Confessions of a Good Arab, by Israeli authors, are both state-of-the-nation novels disguised as love stories. The state of the nation, they tell us, is bad and sad. Oz’s principal female character Ilana loves the Zionist songs she learned when she arrived from Poland as a child. Now it grieves her to hear them: “There is a land but we have not found it. Some jester in disguise has crept in and seduced us into loathing what we have found. Destroying what was precious and will not return.” Her mournful mood is shared to varying degrees by everyone in Kaniuk’s Confessions of a Good Arab. Even the old terrorist Bunim, now a Mossad officer, cannot adapt to the new irrationalism of the fundamentalists. The narrator’s German-Jewish grandfather, Franz Rosenzweig, a world-famous surgeon and high-minded old-fashioned liberal, sees
a dangerous turning point in the Zionist idea, that will turn into a nationalist adventure, bolstered by narrow religious prejudices…releasing Jewish devils, self-righteous devils who can see only themselves and no one else, who judge others and never themselves, full of paranoia, destroying everything we dreamt of here.
What Franz himself dreamt was not precisely the usual Zionist dream of a homeland, but a romance of Arab-Jewish brotherhood. The dream began when he first came to Palestine in 1917, a handsome young officer in the German army. Everyone in Confessions of a Good Arab is beautiful as befits the characters in a tragic epic—a sort of Nibelungenlied of preordained love and a curse through several generations. The young Franz is entertained by an Arab landowner in his beautiful garden and falls in love with his host’s beautiful thirteen-year-old nephew:
The grey eyes of Kafur’s brother’s son shone like rare precious stones. Hundreds of years of ancient chivalry and glory married the beauty of the cold northern lakes which the crusaders had brought with them nine hundred years before to the blazing yellow desert in the eyes and face of Azouri.
Franz’s Germanic-historic-platonic Schwärmerei is reciprocated: “Azouri said that Franz looked at him and he looked at Franz and they both knew in the terrible closeness they felt for each other that two pieces of an ancient coin had suddenly been welded, but there was no market where it could still be used to buy anything.”
Back in Germany, Franz sees a girl who is Azouri’s double. He is fated to marry her, and does. Käthe is the child of a Hamburg Jewish family so prestigious and assimilated that her parents look down on the other Jews traveling with them to Auschwitz. But that happens many years later. First Azouri comes to Berlin to study history. He calls on Franz. When he sees Käthe, they recognize their mirror images in each other and the second preordained Wagnerian love is born, though never to be consummated. But as a historian Azouri feels “the thinness of the ice on which Franz and Käthe …