In this latest from Yehoshua (A Woman in Jerusalem, 2006, etc.), an Israeli family’s cohesiveness is endangered when one member, distraught over his son’s death from friendly fire, sheds his Jewish identity.
Amotz and Daniela Ya’ari have been married for 37 years. Daniela’s sister, wife of a former Israeli diplomat in Tanzania, has died from a heart attack. Daniela decides to take a weeklong trip to Africa, though even this brief separation disturbs husband and wife, whose expressions of love border on cloying. Upon Daniela’s arrival, her brother-in-law Yirmi shocks her by throwing her Israeli newspapers and Hanukkah candles in the fire. The reason emerges slowly as Yehoshua crosscuts between Africa and Tel Aviv, where Amotz runs his engineering-design company and attends to family business. These scenes showcase his abundant goodwill, a trait he shares with Daniela, but they distract from the true drama: Yirmi’s transformation. Before his wife’s death, he had lost his son Eyal to friendly fire in a Palestinian border town. Yirmi’s sleuthing revealed that the accident was Eyal’s fault, but the most searing revelation was the nature of the Israeli occupation. “The Jews are incapable of grasping how others see them,” he tells Daniela. So Yirmi has detached himself from all things Jewish, working now as financial manager for an African anthropological research team. Daniela sees in her brother-in-law the familiar figure of the self-hating Jew, but she does not speak out, and the visit ends cordially, if anti-climactically. Has Yirmi seen the truth, that the same people can be both warmhearted and oblivious to Palestinian suffering? The paradox extends to the images of fire as both savior and destroyer that suffuse the novel, the hopeful Hanukkah candles that flicker throughout making a sharp contrast with the fire that killed Eyal.
The book would have been more hard-hitting if Yirmi’s story had been front and center.