Arts & Culture

Escaping Things Past

Friendly Fire, A.B. Yehoshua’s most recent work, opens with a middle-aged couple bidding each other farewell in an airport, as the wife prepares to take off for a weeklong trip abroad, her first such trip alone. It’s an appropriate image … Read More

By / January 16, 2009

Friendly Fire, A.B. Yehoshua’s most recent work, opens with a middle-aged couple bidding each other farewell in an airport, as the wife prepares to take off for a weeklong trip abroad, her first such trip alone. It’s an appropriate image for a novel whose central question seems to be whether escape is ever truly possible. The novel focuses on how the past weighs heavily on the present, at times limiting the abilities of modern Israelis to transcend current circumstances and work towards a viable future.

Friendly Fire follows two distinct, though not unrelated narratives, each centered on one half of the couple—Amotz and Daniela—that part at the novel’s beginning, and reunite at its end. While Daniela travels to Tanzania to visit Yirmiyahu, the husband of her recently deceased sister, ostensibly to mourn the loss of her sister, Amotz remains at home, in Israel, awaiting her return. It is through him that we learn about life in Israel, as it is lived on the ground. We see Amotz involved in his routines: the daily grind of work as an engineer that involves dealing with dissatisfied clients; checking in on an aging father who is being tended to by Phillipine immigrants whose young son has unwittingly adapted, quite comfortably, to a culture his parents will likely never fully relate to; babysitting his young, tantrum-prone grandchildren. Through Amotz, we learn that life in Israel can be, in spite of everything, quite normal, even, at times, a little dull.

But if the novel has one central character, it is Yirmiyahu, the brother-in-law who is biding his time as a middle aged man on a foreign continent far away from any reminders of his Jewishness, his Israeli identity, and the burdensome weight of a history he wants no part of. Yirmiyahu is, quite literally, running away from his past.

The bereaved father of an Israeli soldier killed by “friendly fire”, Yirmiyahu has come to associate his personal traumas with the collective trauma of the Jewish people and of Israel, and he wants out. It is hard not to flinch at the Friendly Fire‘s depiction of Yirmiyahu throwing the Israeli newspapers Daniela has brought with her into the fire, because, as he says “that is where they belong.” Same for the Hanukah candles (the novel, incidentally, takes place over the course of the eight days of Hanukah) Daniela has brought along to celebrate with her brother-in-law. In response to Daniela’s outcry, Yirmiyahu says “. . . I’ve simply decided to take a rest here from all that.” That, being “the whole messy stew, Jewish and Israeli. . .”

Though Yehoshua paints a convincing portrait of an individual who feels as if he is being pursued by the weight of history, he fails to fully explain why and how a mature adult man would believe that running away could ever be the answer. Yirmiyahu is escaping more than the past, of course. As he confesses to Daniela, for years after his son’s death, he was possessed by an unrelenting need to know precisely what happened on that fateful day. Secretly, he visited the site of his son’s death and communicated with the Palestinian family on whose roof his son had been posted. He pursued any leads he could find and tried to reenact in his mind the exact chain of events that led to his son’s death. What he discovers in the end—that his son acted irresponsibly and caused his comrades to mistake him for a wanted enemy—does nothing to alleviate his pain. In reality then, Yirmiyahu is seeking to escape the past insofar as it hinders his ability to live fully in the present.

Famous as a literary star and a controversial Jewish thinker, Yehoshua has raised the ire of many a Diaspora Jew through his repeated insinuations that one cannot be quite fully Jewish outside of Israel. Perhaps the character of Yirmiyahu is meant to substantiate his arguments. For Yehoshua, Diaspora life is nothing more than an attempt at escape—from the past, from one’s inner consciousness, and from the larger destiny of the Jewish people, which he sees as inextricably bound up with the Jewish state. From that vantage point, to live as a Jew outside of Israel may indeed be an effort in futility. And yet, in his depiction of the tragic figure of Yirmiyahu, Yehoshua also seems to be acknowledging the tension fraught reality of life as an Israeli Jew, where every act, every stone one steps on, every breath one inhales seems to bind one, over and over again, to a history and a national identity that can, at times, be suffocating. We all, at some point, feel the need to escape something—our past, a particular memory, a person. But few of us move hundreds of miles away from anything resembling home, and cut off all ties with family, friends, and the culture we have known all our lives, for a freedom that is ultimately, of course, utterly elusive.

 

But Yirmiyahu isn’t the only character in this book who seeks escape. In one of the novel’s more poignant moments we learn of a secret love affair between Amotz’s aging father and an elderly Jerusalem woman. Years earlier, Amotz’s father had built a private elevator for the woman who would become his lover, an elevator that served only one purpose: escape. It gave a lonely woman the means to get away from the noise of the city center, by transporting her to a private rooftop retreat. In recent years, Amotz’s father, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, has put an end to their visits–his own attempt at escaping the humiliations of living with a debilitating disease. In a similar vein, we encounter Amotz’s son, who repeatedly dodges his reserve duty, only to be taken forcibly by military policeman; and there is the daughter-in-law who shirks parental responsibility at every turn. Daniela, too, in her own way, is escaping, though in her case it is rather less clear what she is fleeing from and why. Indeed, it seems that in this book everyone, with the notable exception of Amotz, is running away from something.

Yehoshua is hardly the first or only writer to obsess over the influence of memory and history on the lives of modern Israelis, and on how the past poses perhaps one of the greatest threats to the sustainability of the Jewish state. Authors from Hayim Gouri (his poem “Inheritance” explores the Akedah memory and how it affects Isaac’s progeny, causing generations of Jews to be “born with the knife in their heart”) to Amos Oz have explored this issue, perhaps none so powerfully as Dan Pagis, who, in his haunting prose poem, “Abba,” examines the troubled relationship between the author and his father who, we learn, is “guilty” of living without memory, while his son is unable to forget the traumas of his past.

In Friendly Fire, Yirmiyahu, too, doesn’t know how to forget, so he must run away. On her return, at the novel’s end, Daniela reports to her husband that their brother-in-law has no plans to come back to Israel, and that he prefers Africa because it “enables him to disengage from everything.” To this, Amotz responds incredulously: “Is there such a thing as everything? And even if there were, how is it possible to disengage from it? . . . He has no choice, he’ll come back in the end.” Sure Jews can live, and maybe even flourish in the Diaspora, but ultimately, as far as Yehohsua is concerned, they can never fully extricate themselves from the larger destiny of their people as it unfolds in the Jewish homeland.

Indeed, the novel’s most sympathetic character is Amotz, which may ultimately be the author’s way of conveying his own message about life in Israel. To live in Israel, as a Jew and as an Israeli, Yehoshua seems to be saying, is to be involved in the nitty gritty of daily life, to be a contributing member of society, to learn to live in the moment, and to try, as hard as one can, not to let the past overshadow the present, lest, as Nietzsche warned, “the dead bury the living.” It’s no easy feat, as Yehoshua readily admits. But is it even possible? This, it seems, is the pressing question we are left with by the novel’s end.

 

 

Shoshana Olidort is a freelance writer spending the year in Jerusalem. Her work has appeared in Ha’aretz, Forward, Pleiades and American Book Review, among other publications.