Sayed Kashua has a weekly column in the Israeli news source “Haaretz” as well as being the creator of one of Israel’s most popular sitcoms “Arab Labour”. Living in Jerusalem this novel (translated from the Hebrew) is set there and has two distinct threads.
Alternate parts switch between the third person narrated tale of a nameless wealthy lawyer (always referred to as “the lawyer”) and the first person narrated story of an alienated social worker who drifts through his days and spends his nights earning extra income by being a live in carer for a comatose Jew, “Yonatan”.
“The lawyer” visits a bookshop on a weekly basis buying the “book of the week” that was featured in the local media and occasionally buys a second hand “classic” but to maintain appearances always asks the store attendant to gift wrap these purchases. One day he buys a second hand copy of Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata” (a first person narrative describing a husband’s jealous rage that leads to him killing his wife), inside he finds a love letter, written in his wife’s hand. He is also besieged by jealous rage and decides to hunt down the book’s previous owner, simply known by an inscription on the title page, “Yonatan”.
Our social worker, Amir Lahab, is socially awkward, was brought up in an isolated village by his single mother and wants to leave his low Arab lifestyle behind. His work for the disabled Yonatan brings him in contact with alternative music, classic literature and photography – he spends his nights rebuilding Yonatan’s past by rummaging through his things. A better life could await Amir, who bears a striking resemblance to his patient Yonatan, if only he could steal the other’s identity.
Our novel contains a large number of sections devoted purely to what it is like to be an Arab in Jerusalem:
Lawyers, accountants, tax advisors, and doctors – brokers between the noncitizen Arabs and the Israeli authorities, a few thousand people, living within Jerusalem but divorced from the locals among whom they reside. They will always be seen as strangers, somewhat suspicious, but wholly indispensable. Without them who would represent the residents of east Jerusalem and the surrounding villages in the Hebrew-speaking courts and tax authorities, against the insurance companies and the hospitals? Not that there is any great lack of doctors, lawyers, or economists among the east Jerusalem Arabs, but what can be done if, more often than not, the Israeli authorities do not accept their credentials? A higher education from somewhere in the West Bank or from another part of the Arab world does not suffice in Israel; a whole slew of supplementary material and a battery of tests, the vast majority of which are in Hebrew, are required. A few of the east Jerusalemites actually push through the gruelling Israeli accreditation process, but the lawyer also knew that many of the locals preferred to be represented by someone who was a citizen of the state of Israel. He, so the lawyer felt they thought, was surely more familiar with the workings of the Jewish mind and soul. He, they believed, could not have attained his position in life without connections, kosher or otherwise. Somehow, in the eyes of the locals, the Arab citizens of Israel where considered to be half-Jewish.
Personally I found these “political rants” a distraction, it is fine to give us context and a time and place for our character’s actions but the relentless preaching about Arabs vs Jews, the life in the villages etc. became a tad tedious.
Splitting the novel into a first person and third person narrative was also a distraction. Interestingly this novel also appears under the title of “Second Person Singular” and that is probably a better title than the reference to Amir’s and Yonatan’s black and white photography and the play on “exposure” for the lawyer to find the true story of his wife’s love letter.
Both of our protagonists here are filled with self-doubt and are constantly questioning their own self-worth:
Maybe at some point he really would come across what they called a soul mate. Maybe now that he was older, more organized, more aware of his wants, more in control of his thoughts, he would be able to discern between temporary lust and sustainable love. Maybe now he would be able to find a woman he could sleep next to every night, maybe he would feel the warmth of her body seeping into his bones, granting him a tranquillity he had never known. The lawyer saw before his eyes a faceless woman, but he knew she had the face of an angel and she slept peacefully in his arms, her face smooth, a happy sheen across her cheeks. He imagined them sleeping harmoniously together, completing one another in their sleep, too, wrapped in a comfortable embrace, moving their bodies with complete synchronicity, always fitting together. For a moment he felt a rush of warmth in his heart. Maybe all of those romantic poets were right? Maybe he shouldn’t have been so dismissive of their words? Maybe he shouldn’t have been so sceptical of what was clearly a sublime sensation?
Maybe this, maybe that, I tell you this novel contains a truckload of “maybes”. Personally I found the story rather implausible, it reads like one of Sayed Kashua’s soap opera plots. I can see the movie rights being bought up and a mystery thriller edge being added for a blockbuster release. All good and well if your reading choices are the “best seller” lists, but this is on a list for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, a Prize I thought showcased the writing skills and translating skills throughout the globe.
An easy read, that has a nice ending but not a novel that will make the short list of this award for mine (you watch it will probably win it!!!)