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 were skating, the layer of culture of which they and the other Jews like them were the finest jewel.” He warns them to leave, and they emigrate to Palestine with their little daughter, Grete, now renamed Hava. Hava is wounded in the war of 1948 and becomes a national heroine.
Azouri studies and teaches at universities in Europe and the Middle East, and eventually returns to his homeland. The hostility between Jews and Arabs makes him shy of contacting his old friends. He is now a distinguished writer on the Arab-Jewish conflict, and ensconced in his despair:
He came to the conclusion which we are only beginning to understand today, that there is no hope at all, that the tragedy begins long before the historians can locate it. That everything seems to have been preordained. That the fanaticism was inevitable. That the country was foreign to both nations, which invented national movements which did not stem directly from their histories, but only from their sufferings.
One evening in Acre Azouri sees a girl sitting in a café by the sea. The third coup de foudre strikes as he guesses who she is. “And she said, I’m Franz’s daughter. And Käthe’s, he said and when he said ‘Käthe’ his voice was full of longing.” And so Hava and Azouri conceive Yosef, the tormented narrator of the novel. Käthe loses her mind and dies hating Israel as she has from the start. Azouri and Hava marry and have a hard time: mixed marriages are not popular. They move to Paris, but Azouri is homesick and they return to Israel, where the unstoppable deterioration of Arab-Jewish relations tears them apart, individually and as a couple. By the time Hava dies in a motor accident, which may or may not be suicide, they are half-estranged in spite of their mutual passion. Yosef is still a child, “born divided and I’ll die divided.”
He can’t face “the daily round of persecution and discrimination which an Arab in Israel is supposed not only to accept, but even to excuse.” So he decides to grow up a Jew with his grandfather rather than an Arab with his father. His school friends are bright and idealistic, keen on Arab-Jewish friendship. But when the time comes for military service, the army rejects Yosef because he is half-Arab. His friends distance themselves from him. There are other humiliations, and they drive him into the arms of Bunim, the Mossad man, who has been waiting to enlist him as a spy in the Palestinian camps. Yosef’s spying doesn’t come to much. He changes sides, works for the Palestinians, and escapes to Lebanon, where he is welcomed by a Maronite branch of his father’s family: “When we sat down to a midnight supper, my aunt said, try the salad, we’ll fix those Palestinians, we’ll cut off their balls, we’ll gouge out their eyes, try the shrimps.” In despair with the future of the Arabs, the Jews, and himself, Yosef retreats to Paris.
There aren’t many half-Arab Jews, so you could say that Kaniuk’s anti-hero is atypical as well as meant to represent too much. Yosef has no personality except the rift in it, and Azouri, his father and the real hero, exists only through his despairing, forgiving insight. The rest are prototypes representing different degrees of Jewishness, from remote, anti-Israeli Käthe whom everyone adores, through Franz, the flower of European liberalism, to Bunim the Mossad man. The women, including Yosef’s mother Hava and his two mistresses, a Jewish poetess and a liberated Arab actress, are all as capricious, mysterious, and inscrutable as only romantic heroines have a right to be.
But then this is the romantic tale of a love “begotten by despair upon impossibility,” and an elegy not only for the Middle East, but for the past in general: “As for Franz and Azouri, they were the last innocents of the century, the last aristocrats.” The novel may be schematic, but it is borne along by the poetic intensity of its sadness, all the more moving for being held in check by a kind of chivalrous restraint.
Perhaps some of the credit should go to the translator, Dalya Bilu, who manages to give her prose a wry melancholy rhythm that reminds one of Heine. This may even have been the author’s intention, since Yosef, writing his Confessions in Paris, finds that Heine is his favorite poet—“the exile who sat here writing his ironic barbs, his sad Jewish poems, his German love poems.” Anyway, the spirit of Heine, romantic, Germanic, and defeated, has certainly got into this novel.
Amos Oz has been less lucky in his translator. Black Box is an epistolary novel. It sounds awkward: overcolloquial and synthetic at the same time. So it starts by being harder to like than the appealing Confessions of a Good Arab. In any case, it is not in the business of soliciting affection. It is a savage modern tale about divorce, jealousy, resentment, blackmail, law suits, and property deals, and it comes on aggressive, bitter, and sardonic, with a disquieting streak of hysteria running throughout the letters. With the exception of a little girl and an adolescent boy, all the characters are horrid, at least to start with.
Where Kaniuk dwelt on the incompatibility of “two justices,” one for the Arabs, one for the Jews, Oz digs into the beastliness of fanaticism. He too lines up a representative range of Israeli types: Alexander Gideon, brilliant and arrogant, was born in Israel the son of an eccentric Russian tycoon; he was a highranking officer in the Israeli army and wounded (like Hava) in the wars against the Arabs; he is now a professor at an American university and writing a book—like Azouri’s history of the Arab-Jewish conflict—only his is on fanaticism.
His older friend and lawyer Manfred Zakheim is a typical German Jew, European, clever, joky, cynical. Alexander’s Polish former wife Ilana, oversexed and undereducated, feels a sentimental but genuine affection for Israel. Her sister Rahel is a worthy kibbutznik. The most topical and also the most lively and loathsome character is Ilana’s second husband, Michel, a busy, born-again fundamentalist cockroach who came to Israel from Algeria via France, and has known the triple humiliation of being a Jew in an Arab country, an Arab (or for some a pied noir) in France, and an Oriental Jew in Israel. He is the perfect illustration of the neo-Nietzschean thesis of Alexander Gideon’s book: that fanaticism springs from a sense of inferiority. He also fits Franz Rosenzweig’s evocation of “Jewish devils, self-righteous devils.”
Michel’s oily letters are full of pious tags, biblical quotations, false humility, schnorren, blackmail, and resentment against European Jews who are not only more powerful and better educated but also—this comes as a surprise—taller and better-looking than Oriental Jews. Michel is a runt; Ilana towers above him, a blond, sexy mother figure. Alexander combines the brain of Isaiah Berlin with the looks of Clint Eastwood. Boaz, his sixteen-year-old son by Ilana, is “six foot three and still growing,” strong as an ox, with long blond hair and lots of girl friends. What are all these blond beasts doing here?
Well, they are highlighting the conflict between Ashkenazi and Sephardi, top dog and underdog. The underdogs tend to be religious fanatics with shaky standards of personal honesty and souk if not gangland ethics. The top dogs are conceited, rational, cynical, humane, and softer on Arabs; they don’t behave particularly well either—nobody does. However, the underdogs are coming up. Through his extended family, Michel has connections in ministries, property agencies, the police, rabbinical circles. He uses them to screw money out of Alexander—money that is supposed to be for Boaz’s education, but that is really going into buying out Arabs on the West Bank and settling Jewish fundamentalists there, an operation intended to be both pleasing to God and profitable to Michel and his bunch.
The story is a wrangle over the violent but amiable dropout Boaz and his paternal inheritance. It is fought out in a cat’s cradle of letters between Boaz himself, Ilana, Michel, Alexander, plus Alexander’s lawyer and a private detective employed by the lawyer to spy on Michel. The letters express—overexpress—their writer’s personalities to the point of implausibility in such a naturalistic novel. One can accept the brilliant articulateness of Alexander and his lawyer Zakheim, but not Ilana’s, or her lyricism. Boaz’s illiteracy, on the other hand, seems grotesquely overdone.
Alexander and Ilana have been acrimoniously divorced for seven years, but one is meant to sense their unextinguishable passion through the venom of their correspondence, which occasionally breaks into erotic passages. Either way, its lack of pudeur makes it hard to sympathize with them, even toward the end, when a mood of resignation, forgiveness, and charity begins to make itself felt.
By this time Alexander has returned to die of cancer in his father’s neglected mansion. The estate is being run as a farming commune by Boaz and a band of sweet foreign hippies. An atmosphere of peace and laid-back good will prevails. Ilana leaves Michel and moves in to nurse Alexander. This is a gruesome, humiliating process, which she unfastidiously describes in a letter of explanation and apology to Michel. Michel, for all his religiosity behaves vindictively: he forces Ilana to give up their baby daughter under a rabbinical interdiction. Ilana responds by proposing a necrophiliac ménage à trois. Michel is to bring the little girl back to the commune and share a bed with the dying Alexander and herself:
As you have always yearned to do: to be joined to him and to me. To be joined in him to me, in me to him. For the three of us to be one. For then from without, from the darkness, through the cracks in the shutter shall come wind and rain, sea, clouds, stars, to close in silently on the three of us. And in the morning my son and my daughter will go out with a wicker basket to dig up radishes in the garden.
Mystical and bewildering. Perhaps Michel finds it bewildering too. He replies by copying out Psalm 103. This is the last letter in the book. A bit earlier on, Boaz has delivered a more comprehensible message to his mother:
Take you and your husbands for instance. Not one of the three of you knows what it means to really live. You just fuss all the time instead of doing something. Including that saint [he means Michel] and his mates from the territories. They’re living off the Bible, living off policies, living off speeches and arguments, instead of living off life. It’s the same with the Arabs. They’ve learned from the Jews how to eat their hearts out and how to eat each other and how to eat people instead of ordinary food. I’m not saying the Arabs aren’t bastards. They are, and worse. So what? Bastards are still human beings. Not shit. It’s a shame for them to die. In the end the Jews will finish them off or they’ll finish the Jews off or they’ll finish each other off and there’ll be nothing left in this country again except the Bible and the Koran and the foxes and burned ruins.
Black Box was written three years after Confessions of a Good Arab, and as far as they are romans d’actualite, events in Israel have overtaken them both. Their similarity of outlook doesn’t need pointing out, but it must be significant that each harks back with nostalgia to an aristocratic father figure and a lost garden: on the one hand, Franz Rosenzweig and the garden where he first saw Azouri and which has been destroyed by Zionist settlers; on the other, Alexander’s autocratic father whose neglected garden is being turned over to vegetables by his grandson Boaz. But Boaz won’t stay: “The commune will disperse. Not a living soul will remain. The lizard, the fox, and the viper will reinherit the house and the weeds will return.”
In her last pleading letter to Michel, Ilana asks whether he spends his evenings at the feet of his rabbi “studying Torah with a tear.” “Torah with a tear” would not be a bad alternative title for Elie Wiesel’s novel Twilight, a mystical fable about a Holocaust survivor called Raphael. Raphael is another divorced professor at a North American university, and his subject is mysticism in literature. He is harassed by mysterious anonymous telephone calls. (The telephone is a godsend to mystics: in the last novel by the Catholic Japanese writer Shusaku Endo the hero was also troubled by strange telephone calls from another world.) Raphael’s caller urges him to go to the Mountain Clinic in upstate New York where all the patients suffer from delusions of being characters from the Bible. Apart from its name the place bears no resemblance to Mann’s Magic Mountain. There is absolutely no irony.
Raphael interviews people who imagine themselves to be Adam, Cain, Abraham, a Prophet, the Messiah, and finally God Himself. The interviews contain a mixture of mystical speculation, psychology, mythology, stories from the Torah, fauxnaïf tales from the stetl, corny romantic vignettes, and memories of the Holocaust and Soviet oppression of the Jews. All these fragments bob about in an ocean of tears, and indeed God, the last interviewee, urges Raphael to weep. Raphael is surprised:
What? Cry for Him too? Save Him too? Cry not only to God but for God? Could God need His creatures as much as they need Him? Raphael thinks of his master in Midrash, a scholar whose erudition encompassed all the classics. Raphael will never forget his commentaries on Ecclesiastes. According to him, this desperate book refers not to man but to the King of the Universe. “For all my days are but sorrow!” That is not man howling, but God. “We incessantly beseech God to take pity on us,” said his master, “but who will take pity on Him?”
Raphael divines that the patient who thinks he is God is the same old madman with veiled eyes (long dead, of course) who befriended him when he was a child in Carpathia, and has popped up to lend support in moments of anguish throughout his life; but now “his eyes, infinitely kind and wise, are veiled no more.”
If kindness and wisdom are being preached, it’s disturbing that Wiesel seems to assume it proper for parents to die of grief and rage if their children marry Gentiles; and disturbing also that the only Gentiles in Twilight are the women Raphael sleeps with. One of them is “a Japanese violinist with a passion for Bach”—an odd intrusion of designer chic.
Still, some people will probably consider Twilight moving and uplifting. Others may find that the weepy old lunatic reminds them of the “aged, aged man,/A-sitting on a gate” in the song the White Knight sings to Alice. It continues:
And now, if e’er by chance I put My fingers into glue,
Or madly squeeze a right-hand foot into a left-hand shoe,
Or if I drop upon my toe A very heavy weight,
I weep, for it reminds me so
Of that old man I used to know—
Whose look was wild, whose speech was slow,
Whose hair was whiter than the snow,
Whose face was very like a crow,
With eyes, like cinders, all aglow,
Who seemed distracted with his woe….
The White Knight was disappointed with Alice’s reaction because she didn’t cry as much as he thought she would. It’s unlikely that Wiesel will suffer the same disappointment; he’s been wringing tears from the Jewish destiny for years and years.
August 18, 1988