Israeli novelists-young and old
When reading a novel, I focus more on plot and character analysis than the author’s writing style. Yet, when considering two recent works by Israeli writers, the differences in their prose was impossible to ignore.
In her first novel, “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid” (Hogarth), Shani Boianjiu, who wrote in English, employs very blunt language in order to portray a young, disaffected generation of Israelis. A.B. Yehoshua, in his latest work, “The Retrospective” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), offers very lush writing and complex sentences that were translated from the Hebrew by Stuart Schoffman. It’s tempting to consider that the difference in prose is related to their age—claiming the impatience of youth influenced Boianjiu, while Yehoshua’s elderly characters’ depth of experiences allows them to be more introspective—but I’m uncertain whether or not that’s truly the case. What is clear is that their prose styles greatly affect the way their stories unfold.
Boianjiu’s book, which was one of the finalists for this year’s Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, explores the lives of three Israeli women—Yael, Avishag and Lea—as they finish school and begin their required stints in the army. Rather than offering a cohesive plot, Boianjiu shares vignettes from their lives: Yael at a training base teaching soldiers to be better marksmen; Lea working at a checkpoint, checking Palestinian day laborers’ papers; and Avishag watching the Egyptian border in an attempt to keep African refugees from entering the country. In addition, Boianjiu presents a look at their lives after their army duty is complete. Their experiences are not only explored from each woman’s perspective; the narrative also offers insights into the minds of other characters and, at one point, a first person plural omnipotent narrator.
The mood of the novel is downbeat: Boianjiu doesn’t offer a particularly positive spin on Israeli life. For example, Lea notes why she found working at the checkpoint so difficult: “We were supposed to notice what the government wanted us to, dangers, but I would still only notice what I happened to notice. This was because I couldn’t realize I was a soldier. I still thought I was a person.” Yael is blunt about the options offered to men and women in the army: “If you are a boy and you go into the army, one thing that can happen is that you can die. The other thing that can happen is that you can live. If you are a girl and go into the army you probably won’t die. You might send reservists to die in a war. You might suppress demonstrations at checkpoints. But you probably won’t die.” Yet, the novel ends showing how army service was once a positive thing, at least in their parents’ generation. The same doesn’t ring true for Yael, Avishag or Lea.
While Boianjiu’s prose is easy to read, I had some difficulty keeping track of the characters because their voices were similar. Some plot lines were very affecting, particularly the ones featuring a Sudanese girl seeking refuge in Israel and the engagements at the various borders. These and other stories left me wondering exactly where the line lies between fiction and fact in “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid.”
While Boianjiu offers insights into the minds of several characters, Yehoshua focuses on one: the elderly Israeli film director Yair Moses. When the novel—which won a Prix Médicis Étranger award—opens, Moses and Ruth, the leading actress in many of his films, are attending a retrospective of his films in Spain. To the director’s surprise, instead of offering his later, more successful films, the festival features his first attempts at film making, which were created with his former student and screenwriter, Trigano. Moses has rarely spoken to Trigano since the two parted in anger over a disagreement about the concluding scene in their last film. The opportunity to revisit his work causes Moses to consider whether he made the right decision about that film’s final image. After returning to Israel, Moses seeks out his former partner to propose a new collaboration. The result is an unsettling demand that forces Moses to discover what true atonement means.
While Yehoshua writes beautiful prose (the best quotes are too lengthy to reprint in a short review), “The Retrospective” is longer on introspection and intricate detail than plot. The action in the films is described almost moment by moment, as if the author is trying to recreate the visual images. Moses’ ruminations on his relationship with Ruth, his connection to his ex-wife and family, and his directorial career are analyzed in-depth.
Although at times the intensive amount of detail was welcome and offered insights into the character, this was not true when portraying the minutia of Moses’ daily life. The discussions of Moses’ work, though, will interest film fans since they offer an interesting examination of the creation of each film.
Unfortunately, one part of the plot was particularly disturbing and raised an unexpected reaction. It’s impossible to give many details without revealing too much; suffice to say that the revelations made it impossible for me to sympathize with Trigano, since it reveals his misogynistic tendency without revealing the reason behind them. While this may not bother other readers, I found it difficult to appreciate and enjoy Yehoshua’s latest work as much as I have his previous novels.