The Jew from Tangier

Reading A.B. Yehoshua can make a historian like myself uneasy. The Israeli novelist knows me and my colleagues too well: this explorer of the most diverse individual psyches, young and old, male and female, ancient and modern, showed his usual acuteness when he made one of his characters express our methods, questions, and obsessions. In A Late Divorce, published in 1984, Asa Kaminka—a young university teacher in Jerusalem, sullen and emotional—exhibits the two deep-seated, contradictory drives that make historians function. As a teacher, Asa uses an impressive mastery of detail, a passionate delivery, and dramatic gestures to re-create the lost world of the Russian radicals of the late nineteenth century. The humane revolutionaries Vera Zasulich and Vinarofsky, fearless in their attacks on enemies of the people and equally firm in their refusal to harm the innocent, make vivid appearances in his lectures.

Asa’s eloquence deeply impresses his wife and father, who visit his class—but not his actual pupils, who are distracted, underprepared, and sarcastic. In his moments of glory and frustration Yehoshua captures the experience of everyone who has taught history, in Israel or elsewhere, with all the power he can muster, only to find that the amiable and intelligent young people to whom he sings his Siren songs have their ears blocked, like Ulysses’ crew—not with wax but with the white noise of a common culture that takes little interest in earlier times and with the hum of pressing practical concerns which make the past seem irrelevant. Like all good teachers, Asa never gives up. Sitting in a bus on his way back to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, smelling the orange groves in blossom, he plans his campaign: “I’ll hook them with the flashy little items and take them quickly on to the big significant ones. They’ll learn to love those young terrorists yet.”

Yet Asa, as a scholar, believes he has found something like a historical equivalent to Mr. Casaubon’s Key to All Mythologies—a set of simple, general social laws, irresistibly powerful, that will make it possible “to understand the pulsing shuttle of the historical grid,” proving that “the historical process…is inherent in human behavior and has its own laws that render it both predictable and quantifiable.” Asa fantasizes that the historical laws he has reconstructed, rather than the dead people he has brought back to life, will serve as his ticket to immortality—the bait that will lure his “eager young biographer,” a hundred years from now, to far-off Minneapolis to try to understand his exiled father’s formative impact on him.

Asa, in other words, manages to occupy, simultaneously, the two extreme positions we find among historians’ attitudes: he is at once the Rankean historian, as steeped in the details of past life as a nineteenth-century historical novelist, and the Saint-Simonian theorist, the would-be scientist of past processes, trying to frame an army of unalterable laws from a world of facts that scatter at his approach and resist his efforts to combine them. His warring parents, his warring passions, and his warring ideas pull Asa’s personality in many directions at once, until it becomes as tight as a high-tension wire. More than once he comes close to snapping under the pressure.

Appalled by the emotional warfare that his parents wage against each other instead of negotiating a divorce, he begins to strike himself, to slap his own face, again and again. Cold to his gifted, beautiful wife in Jerusalem, he becomes wild with passion for a prostitute with whom he has grubby, humiliating sex in a Tel Aviv shoe store. The dignified, cerebral historian arrives home shaking, covered with his own vomit. Confined as much by his conflicting intellectual desires as by his participation in the horrid dramas of his family, he fails to reach his stu-dents or to create histories that can be read by others. Asa is a figure to give any historian pause, an intellectual death’s head, too accurately drawn to be ignored.

No wonder that Asa’s creator can play the historian himself in his fictions about contemporary Israel. Yehoshua has stamped the bright coin of engrossing fictions from what seem the most ordinary raw materials. His stories evoke the social and physical landscapes of modern Israel, the crowded apartments and dusty roads, crude falafel stands and tiny stores, the pervasive military presence and the neighborhoods segregated by origin, belief, and practice. But across this dark background, against the pressures exerted by Israel’s enveloping, punishingly public social life, he makes chains of tiny, emotionally charged private spaces stand out like constellations. Yehoshua is above all a specialist in voices. In his dialogues and internal monologues, students, shopkeepers, manual workers, opinionated professors, housewives, soldiers, and children speak and think, their words and images meticulously fitted to their characters, down to the minutest of details.

Yehoshua has deep roots in the history of Israel—and of Palestine. A fifth-generation Jerusalemite, he is the son of an erudite Arabist who also devoted himself to the study of Sephardic history and tradition. Though Yehoshua kept his face to the present in his early work, he has turned in more recent years to the Jewish past.* In Mr. Mani, published in 1990, the techniques that previously yielded superb novels about the present produced a masterpiece about love and death, Zionism and Arabism, identities and borders in Jewish history. Yehoshua spoke in the voices of a young woman from a contemporary kibbutz and a spice trader from nineteenth-century Salonika, a German soldier and an English Jew, evoking in each case the confrontation between a coherently evoked private world and a richly reconstructed historical environment.

What Yehoshua achieved in Mr. Mani, his reimagining of the Sephardic past, had much to do with his own life and experience. Yehoshua acknowledges the depth of his connection to the history of Palestine, and to the history of the larger empires that have always intersected, struggling and warring, on the burnt edge of Asia. But he himself also lives in history in a way unknown to most writers in the West. He is strongly committed to an often contentious set of political and cultural positions. He has defended the rights of nonreligious Jews to live freely in Israel; though an unbeliever, he has recently joined a Reform community to emphasize his support for their claim to full autonomy from Orthodox control and criticism (a step which, characteristically, has set off new polemics and which he in turn has vigorously defended). He has condemned the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and strongly supported the right of Arabs to live in their own societies in the former Palestine—a belief shared by more than one of the tragically prophetic Mani family. Some American academics—who give themselves the airs of John Reed when, say, they venture to address striking graduate students at Yale—claim the status of “public intellectuals.” Yehoshua is one. In the first years after the intifada broke out, he was heroic.

At the same time, Yehoshua’s views would not fit easily in the right-thinking circles of the American university. He does not believe that Jewish communities can survive, in a meaningful way, in the Diaspora, or that Jews and Arabs can form a single democratic society. And he defends these unpopular positions with vigor, confronting his enemies in the open and addressing them and the issues that divide them in a clear, vigorous way more characteristic of nineteenth-century liberals than of later twentieth-century progressives.

Yehoshua’s new novel, translated into rich and lively English by Nicholas de Lange, a Cambridge University specialist on medieval Jewish history, takes him and his readers farther than ever from the present—away from Israel and the parts of America that are symbiotically connected with it to North Africa, Iberia, and France just before the end of the first millennium. In previous books, Yehoshua’s characters have spoken for themselves, the wild energy of their thoughts and the textures of their daily lives spilling across the page in language whose color and energy sweep the reader along. In A Journey to the End of the Millennium, a single narrator shifts his attention from character to character, moving forward and backward, often dreamily, in a way that fascinates, but also sometimes exasperates.

The cast of characters is very mixed. Ben Attar, a Jewish merchant from Tangier, has been engaged in trade for years in what began as his own enterprise but has evolved into a three-way partnership with an Arab, Abu Lutfi, and his Jewish nephew, Abulafia. The company’s activities span an astonishing range of places and goods. Yehoshua conveys something of the real flavor of early medieval social and economic life, describing both the tiny, isolated communities, confined to the traditional practices of local religion and small-scale agriculture, in which most Europeans lived, and the far-flung trading ventures which boldly crossed religious and cultural borders.

Abu Lutfi trolls the oases of North Africa for spices, bolts of embroidered cloth, and jeweled daggers, and passes them on to Abulafia, who sells the goods in Northern Europe. A tragedy has expelled the young Jew from his home in Tangier. His wife, who has borne him a retarded daughter, has drowned herself. Now he wanders the roads and sleeps in the inns of an alien world, cold and Christian. At first, he disguises himself as a leper or a monk. Later, as he discovers the tiny Jewish settlements—consisting sometimes of a single street or even a single tiny house—that dot the dark little towns of the Frankish North, he learns to move easily from node to node in the fragile but extended network of European Jewish society. Yet Abulafia is not a pathetic figure. His bright, exotic goods attract both Jews and Christians. Europe, poor, harried by Vikings, and battered by its own chill climate, still offers him a market. The business prospers.

Each summer, the partners meet near Barcelona. Abulafia, a Scheherazade of the market, pours out “living gushing words, describing the adventures of each bolt of brightly colored cloth, each sack of rare condiments, each inlaid dagger, which was the source of a veritable saga of exchanges unwinding like a snake until the final transaction resulted in a coin of silver or gold, or a heavy precious stone.” During these meetings, Ben Attar and Abu Lutfi can see the full scale and power of their business, which reaches from the Atlas Mountains to Provence and Gascony and brings members of three faiths together. The situation seems stable, a productive relation founded on both affection and the profit motive. Eventually, Ben Attar even manages to persuade Abulafia to take his damaged daughter with him to Europe and settle her, with a nursemaid, among other Jews.

But the partnership soon proves more vulnerable than any of its members could have expected. Abulafia meets a Jewish woman, Esther-Minna, older than himself, who descends from a pious dynasty of Northern Jews living in Worms. Small, blond, blue-eyed, she clearly represents a different society, a different kind of Jew. He marries her, and as he does so, he joins her family, with its very different traditions. At this point the conflict that drives the book begins. Ben Attar has two wives, one older and one younger. But rabbinical authority in Northern Europe has condemned polygamy. Esther-Minna, horrified by the presence of a primitive polygamist even on the outskirts of her proper, law-abiding life, forces Abulafia to break with his uncle.

The Jew from Tangier cannot bear to see the destruction of his extended family and his successful firm. He sets out for Europe accompanied by a magnificently ill-assorted group, a Mediterranean counterpart to Chaucer’s Christian pilgrims. Ben Attar’s companions include his Arab partner, several Arab sailors, an African servant boy, the poetic Rabbi Elbaz from Toledo who is meant to serve as his legal expert and becomes a Sancho Panza to his Quixote, as well as the rabbi’s son, two small, gloomy camels, and—most important—his own two wives. In an old ship Ben Attar swoops up the Atlantic coast of Europe and down the Seine. At first, the expedition seems to entail little risk, though Ben Attar and his company are cautious. Only the top of the mast, where the rabbi’s son sits and observes, is visible over the trees and undergrowth that flank the river, and he is hardly noticed by the goosegirls and peasants on land. The ship’s passage is as smooth and untroubled as the vision it resembles:

Surely even if someone had happened to raise his eyes and catch sight of the tip of a white triangle swaying above the tops of the trees, topped by a naked youth half merged with the pinkish sky, he would not have hastened to verify the import of this apparition but would have simply fallen to his knees, crossed himself, and bowed his head in excited gratitude for this portent announcing the advent of the approaching millennium.

Yehoshua’s third-person descriptions of his travelers’ thoughts are almost as lyrical as the interior monologues of his earlier works. Here he imagines the Arab captain, heart pounding with anxiety and head pounding from a wine-induced hangover, steering the ship as lightly as if it were a glider:

Abd el-Shafi, who for several days had feared the opposing force of the expected current, was surprised not only by the gentleness of the summer stream but also by the unexpected generosity of the northwesterly wind that blew from behind them, whose good intentions he had discovered from its caress on his naked back. If these infidels are so successful, he mused with the strange jealousy of a veteran sea salt, at balancing current and wind to facilitate the passage of travelers on this river, why then, despite their primitive faith in a divinity who vanished from his tomb, they have a slight advantage over the Muslims, who are drawn to the decrees of fate….

With help from his sailors he lashed himself to the great mast, so that he would feel the sail on his body and know the precise direction of the wind and so that he could estimate from a height the safe distance between the two banks of the river. In order not to lose contact with his sailors he attached cord harnesses to them, and by lightly tugging on the cords he could transmit his orders to them, as though he were in charge of a great chariot rather than a ship, with its horses contained within it. And so, softly and silently, the ship traversed the first five bends of the river.

Yehoshua succeeds in bringing to life the places the travelers visit, from the tiny port of Rouen, its cathedral “cramped and sad in its dark severity,” with its “sweet-sour smell blended of incense and sweat,” to the fantastic island city of Paris, which resembles “a gigantic illuminated ship sailing along beside them.”

In a first public trial, held at a Jewish-owned vineyard outside Paris, Ben Attar prevails: a jury of seven men and women declares that his partnership with Abulafia is valid. But Esther-Minna refuses to accept this judgment: she swears that she will return home and divorce Abulafia. Ben Attar’s rabbi proclaims his willingness to debate the question before a second court, to stage “a contest with the sages of Ashkenaz.” The book’s title, with its allusion to Céline, refers especially to this second journey. In the course of it Ben Attar and his friends must cross lands that, as the critic James Young has pointed out, are soaked with blood in modern memory. They trek past Metz and Verdun, the killing fields of the twentieth century, to Worms—which will become, not long after the time Yehoshua describes, a killing field of its own, as Christian Crusaders turn to purifying Europe of its Jews.

The overland journey of Southern Jews and Arabs through small, dark, alien towns in which their feeling of vulnerability increases day by day is clearly headed in an ominous direction, and in more than one sense. The Northern European Jews, with their precision and scrupulousness, their belief in their own righteousness and their insistence on the letter of the law, frighten and depress the visitors from a more open land. The Jews and Arabs from Tangier miss the bright skies, deep blue sea, and quiet, sunny houses of home. Meanwhile the Christians, with their alien crucifixes and strange religious services, their firm conviction that the Jews are Christ-killers, their increasing interest in extending the rule of their religion, threaten the Jews’ very existence. The most darkly prophetic figure the travelers encounter is a Jewish doctor who has converted to Christianity. On Rosh Hashana, which Ben Attar and his party spend in Worms, he uses the language of the liturgy to predict that the Jews who retain their religion will die, while he and his own children will live.

As they travel across mudfields, past glowering soldiers and customs officials, before sour-faced enemies, Ben Attar and his two wives, Rabbi Elbaz and his son, Abulafia and Esther-Minna play out one of the stories Yehoshua likes best—a story of conflicting impulses, some socially acceptable, some wildly subversive. Emotions explode like bombs inside Yehoshua’s characters, propelling them on wild trajectories across the dark European landscape: Ben Attar’s love for his two wives and his passionate connection with his nephew; Abulafia’s obsession with Esther-Minna of the high cheekbones and light hair and his brief attraction to his uncle’s second, younger wife; Esther-Minna’s driving need for a marriage on her own terms. Most troubling of all, there is the desire that Ben Attar’s young wife confesses for a second husband of her own. This undoes his effort to win a favorable verdict from a religious authority in Worms, leads to her death, and provides the ultimate resolution of the plot’s complex twists.

All these outbursts of passion give the story its energy, providing a hot-blooded counterpart to the narrative of what looks—to the modern reader who comes to the text steeped in memories of Conrad and Aguirre, the Wrath of God—like a journey to the heart of Europe’s darkness. At the end, life seems to defeat death: scarred and exhausted, Yehoshua’s characters attain such qualified, partial resolution as a bitterly divided society allows. Ben Attar, who now has only one wife, takes Abulafia’s daughter away with him; his companion Rabbi Elbaz leaves his son with Abulafia and Esther-Minna. Rabbi Elbaz ends the book, dreaming of his son and composing a Hebrew poem, in the new style of the Jews of medieval Spain, about their separation and eventual reunion. But the resolution is provisional at best: though Esther-Minna finds herself, to her own surprise, agreeing to Ben Attar’s suggestion about the exchange of children, it is not clear that anyone’s ideas have been changed, that anyone has shown the supreme generosity of spirit to open himself to the others.

Yehoshua describes smells and sights, foods and buildings, forests and fields, with hallucinatory vividness and power. Once in a while, to be sure, the machinery with which he creates his illusions of the distant past creaks a bit, unlike the smoother devices he used to stage his earlier novels. When Yehoshua’s voyagers return from their defeat at Worms, they pass peasants using a new kind of plow, one designed not just to scratch the earth but to turn it over. Clearly, the author could not bear to omit a detail drawn from Lynn White’s studies of early medieval agriculture, even though it has no part in his story.

For the most part, however, Yehoshua takes pleasure, and inspires it, in creating a past that never was. Nothing in the book more wonderfully violates the codes of historical plausibility, jolting the reader from a state of suspended disbelief to one of delighted incredulity, than the artist’s atelier into which Ben Attar’s young African slave stumbles. Untroubled by any scruples save the demands of his labyrinthine romance, Yehoshua imagines in the early Middle Ages a Parisian studio where an old artist, still ardent and energetic, seeks to find—and surpass—the limits of his art. He is fascinated by the foreign beauty of the young African—as are the three lustful young women who live with him. The boy has stumbled out of Ben Attar’s old Arab boat into the Bateau Lavoir, and we stumble with him.

At times, for all the book’s richly evoked scenery, Yehoshua the public intellectual seems to have gotten the better of Yehoshua the novelist. The novel’s action continually suggests new possibilities of human interplay and solidarity. But its characters remain neat, coherent, tightly enclosed in the boxes in which Yehoshua’s narrator has confined them. Sometimes, in their rigorous adherence to the formulas that govern their behavior, they threaten to become clichés. Northerners are law-bound, precise, blind to the destruction that awaits them; Southerners are fervent, open, able to live and love, at least for a time, with outsiders as well as with other Jews. The European Jewish Diaspora means doom, and only doom, for those who inhabit it. The author, if not his characters, knows the destination of the Jews’ larger European voyage in advance—a knowledge mirrored in the form of the novel, with its single, impersonal narrator, and its refusal to look too deeply into the contradictory beliefs and affections that even Northern souls might harbor. A fascinating drama of unexpected characters, the novel is also a slightly mechanical allegory about the role of European and Sephardic Jews in Israel today. Throughout, grim resentments are at war with faint hopes, and sometimes the resentments seem to be winning.

In the writer Yehoshua, as in the historian Asa Kaminka, two creators of the past contend for mastery. One looks for types, models, and absolute laws; the other loves idiosyncrasies and surprises. One explains why Jews and non-Jews have always behaved, and fought, as they do now. The other treats Jews and non-Jews as individuals, often unpredictable and most fascinating in their irreducibility. In parts of Journey to the End of the Millennium, the former has the upper hand. Fortunately, his colleague continually subverts and upstages him. Every time the novelist breaks through, he shows how imagination, rather than memory, can reconstruct the histories of the human heart, and suggests that a difficult but livable future might be created out of elements as fragile as love and hope.

  1. *

    See Bernard Horn, Facing the Fires: Conversations with A.B. Yehoshua (Syracuse University Press, 1997).