Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
As part of my ongoing but not particularly diligently executed plan to get a handle on contemporary Israeli writing by authors not named Oz, Grossman, or Appelfeld, I was pleased to find Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s debut novel on my recent trip to Canada. (It’s published there by Anansi and in the UK by Pushkin, but not in the US, at least so far.)
One Night, Markovitch, which won a big Israeli prize, begins with twenty men boarding a ship in Mandate-era Palestine on their way to a clandestine mission in Europe. But why would Jews be going to Europe just when so many were trying desperately to get out?
The answer is as fantastic as many of the events in this fanciful novel: in order to circumvent British restrictions on Jewish immigration, each man has agreed to marry a woman active in the Zionist movement and then divorce her once the ship has arrived safely back in Palestine. I’m pretty sure nothing like this ever really happened—though the more I learn about the events of that period the more extraordinary things I learn, so who knows—but historical accuracy isn’t Gundar-Goshen’s concern. Nor is it even the mission itself, which is easily accomplished and cursorily described. Her concern is instead for the metaphor the conceit enables.
One of the men, the Yaakov Markovitch of the title, thoroughly plain if not exactly ugly, is paired up with the most beautiful woman in the group, named (not particularly imaginatively) Bella. For reasons that are never quite clear, Markovitch decides that he won’t divorce Bella. What to him is devotion is to her, not surprisingly, intransigence. Bella has no interest in or desire for Markovitch, yet even though the two live separate lives, sometimes in the same house and sometimes not, he continues to refuse her a divorce, a state of affairs that persists for years.
The novel explores the consequences of this refusal, not just on Bella and Yaakov but also on a handful of others associated with the voyage. This group, most of whom end up on a moshav (I think maybe in the Jezreel Valley, though I can’t be sure: Gundar-Goshen never tells us where it is though maybe it’s obvious to Israeli readers), is clearly intended to represent the generation that founded the state of Israel. Some reviewers—especially those in the German-language press—read the novel as an attempt by a member of the younger generation (Gundar-Goshen was born in 1982) to debunk the myths of tenacity and sacrifice that have long been used to characterize the pioneers who forged a Jewish homeland by making the desert bloom and by defeating a sea of implacable enemies.
I don’t think this reading is quite right, though. It’s not so much that Gundar-Goshen wants to disparage her forbearers or show them as less than heroic. If she did, she would surely have written her book in a less mythologizing style. I’ve always been suspicious of the term “magic realism” because I’ve never understood it. But I think it might be the right term to describe Gundar-Goshen’s book. Consider some of its events: a house become literally frigid as a result of the hostility between its inhabitants; a woman smells of oranges so strongly that the man who loves her unrequitedly banishes the fruit from his surroundings for the rest of his life; and a man willfully blinds himself by staring into the sun after receiving admittedly terrible news. Emotions are literalized in the world of the novel; feelings are so powerful they work on things in extraordinary ways. Here, for example, is Markovitch’s friend extolling the virtues of his soon-to-be wife: “At that point Zeev Feinberg burst into such roaring laughter that the train accelerated, and he finally sighed and said, ‘When we go back, I’ll marry her. Really and truly.’”
The language here—of admiration so strong it can make a train speed up—seems to support the mythology of the virile pioneer. It’s possible, of course, that the novel’s marvelous events are meant ironically. But I think we’re meant to sympathize with these characters, not disparage them.
It’s true that the magic realism of Garcia Marquez and Carpentier and others was developed as a response to the overwhelming vicissitudes of colonial experience, of a way of life so confounding that “mere” realism couldn’t make sense of it. As such magic realism isn’t quiescent or naïve but rather politically subversive. But Gundar-Goshen always subordinates public politics to private emotions, as her opening paragraph makes clear:
Yaacov Markoviotch wasn’t ugly. Which is not to say he was handsome. Little girls didn’t burst into tears at the sight of him, but neither did they smile when they saw his face. He was, you might say, gloriously average. Moreover, Yaacov Markovitch’s face was remarkably free of distinguishing features. So much so that your eyes could not linger on him, but slipped onward to other objects. A tree on the street. A cat in the corner. It required an enormous effort to keep looking at the barrenness of Yaacov Markovitch’s face. People do not enjoy making enormous effort, and so they only rarely looked at his face for any length of time. This had its advantages, and the unit commander was aware of them. He looked at Yaacov Markovitch’s face for exactly the amount of time he needed, then dropped his gaze. You will smuggle weapons, the unit commander said. With that face, no one will notice. And he was right. Yaacov Markovitch probably smuggled more weapons than any other member of the Irgun, and never came close to being caught. The British soldiers’ gaze slid over his face like oil on a gun.
Reading this paragraph in the bookstore I thought I was going to get a novel about the struggle to establish a Jewish state and I was intrigued enough to overlook those irritating sentence fragments and the repeated use of Yaacov Markovitch’s full name (a tic I still cannot explain charitably). But that’s not the book I got. The dangerous missions alluded to by the narrator are never described, the investigation of the terrorism at the heart of the founding of the state is never pursued. What is developed instead is the effect of Markovitch’s face on women, not just the little girls referred to here. But even the physical and emotional responses of distaste, even repulsion, that become so important to the book are confusingly presented. It’s not clear why the “gloriously average” face becomes, in the space of a sentence or two, an almost pathological “barrenness.”
One Night, Markovitch might not put politics at its center, but it doesn’t ignore the political events of the period entirely. Feinberg—the one whose laugh sped up the train—fights in the 1948 war and is psychologically traumatized when he accidentally kills an Arab woman and child. The novel doesn’t have much to say about Jewish-Arab relations, even in moments like this one where it directly references them. Instead, Feinberg’s guilt is depicted through the freezing of his relationship with his wife and child, an emotional disassociation only broken by the melodramatic series of events that follow from his decision to become a Nazi hunter in postwar Europe. One of his victims has an infant child, which he takes as his own, returning with her to Israel.
All of which might simply mean that Gundar-Goshen is more comfortable talking about the nascent Israel’s relationship to Europe than to the Arab-Israeli conflict. (Is the only way for Gentiles to overcome their enmity to Jews to become them, the only way for Jews to overcome their enmity to Gentiles to make them Jews?) But I think that the central tragedy of the Zionist enterprise—its willingness to repeatedly indulge its central fiction: that the land it bent to its will was empty—is never far from her thoughts.
In that sense, then, the split between politics and emotions I’ve been ascribing to the novel isn’t really there. Instead, the emotional warfare practiced by the characters on each other becomes an allegory for Israel’s political situation. This possibility is made clear in two extended meditations on Markovitch’s refusal to divorce Bella.
In the first, Feinberg has learned that Markovitch sleeps every night with Bella’s nightdress and upbraids him for thinking that eventually the nightdress will turn into a woman. “ ‘It’ll never happen, not in a year, not in twenty.’” Markovitch angrily responds:
‘So in another thirty, or forty. You know what, Feinberg, maybe never. But I hope, and that’s something too. And maybe if I hope enough, if I hope really hard, that hope will turn into something real. Look at us, look at this country. Two thousand years we’ve been hoping for her, waiting for her, sleeping at might with our arms around the sleeves of her nightdress, because what is history if not the sleeves of a nightdress that has no smell? And you think she wants us? You think this country returns our love? Nonsense! She vomits us up time and time again, sends us to hell, beats us down without mercy. With the Romans and the Greeks and the Arabs and the mosquitoes. So you think that someone here says, ‘If she doesn’t want me, I should go?’ Someone here says, ‘There’s no point in holding a country by force if she’s been trying to get rid of you from the minute you came to her.’ No. You hold on to her as hard as you can and you hope.’
History might be a lot of things, it might be a nightmare from which we are trying to escape, but nothing here convinces me that it’s the sleeves of a nightdress that has no smell. But just where is the narrator in relation to Markovitch’s outburst? How are we to take his claims? The hoary conflation of land and woman suggests that the answer is, skeptically, a reading supported by the second passage, in which even Markovitch himself comes to see that the rhetoric of oppression, coercion and domination does more harm than good. Feinberg and his wife have suffered a terrible loss; Markovitch catches them comforting each other:
[Markovitch] looked at Zeev Feinberg with wide-open eyes. Only a moment ago he was roaring outside the hospital, gripping his pain and anger with clenched teeth. Now he had let it all go at once, leaving the rotting carcass behind, and had returned to comfort his wife. And he, Markovitch, had been wallowing in his own pain for so many years, holding on to his protesting wife, refusing to let go…. Yaacov Markovitch had been holding on to Bella for so long, and she did not want him. He held her dress in his clenched fist and refused to let go. When he looked at Zeev Feinberg’s open hand on Sonya’s shoulder, he suddenly remembered the blessing of fingers spread wide. And he wondered if he could still open his hand. But the thought terrified him. Let go? Of Bella? How could he? His fist had been clenched for so many years that his hand was no longer suited to any other work. Refusal had been a way of life for him.
The description of the fingers spread wide refers to a line from the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai that stands as the novel’s epigraph: “Even a fist was once an open palm with fingers.” In her riff on Amichai’s image, Gundar-Goshen reveals Feinberg as the closest thing the book has to a hero because of his willingness to forgive, forget, let go, change.
The passage never makes it obvious but it’s hard for me to read Markovitch’s epiphany and not think about the Arab-Israeli conflict. What it might mean to fully unfold the metaphor—to imagine what it might mean for Israelis to unclench the fist against those they’ve refused to let go (which in turn would mean thinking that the Israelis at least believe they love the Arabs, a strange idea perhaps but one that would make sense in the Freudian theory that there is no opposition between love and hate)—is unclear. Perhaps the allegory is really about the Israelis themselves, and a part of themselves they’ve held hostage or forgotten in their decades of being clenched. I don’t know—the book doesn’t tell us. Maybe not surprisingly, it is better at diagnosing the perils of refusal than the implications of acceptance.
But a book premised on the comparability of politics and emotions that cannot articulate what that comparison might enable or require is in bad faith. Gundar-Goshen’s revision of the narratives that have dominated Israeli history is based on the idea that our intimate, emotional relationships ought to predispose our political ones. But she seems unable to tell us how or to what end. And that makes the book more muddleheaded than anything else.
In the end, I just don’t know what to do with One Night, Markovitch. I didn’t read it with particular pleasure, found many of its characters irritatingly portentous and moony, grew exasperated with its magical events and histrionic prose—“Because Sonya’s eyes were identical to Bella’s and, from now on, one would not be able to cry without the other crying along with her.”
I was frustrated not because I disdain the thing that might go under the term “magic’ but because I believe in them so much. Gundar-Goshen’s magic of potent laughter, sentient houses, and inescapable odours is thin gruel compared to the real work that fantasy performs in our affective and social-political lives. Ultimately it’s the domestication of magic that bothers me about One Night, Markovitch.
Yet I can’t entirely dismiss it, either. I’m drawn to its belief that anyone who expects to be able to force another person to recognize their desires, even from what might seem good or noble motives, misunderstands the idea of what it means to enter into a relationship. And the reminder that a fist was always—and so might become again—an open palm and five dexterous, supple fingers resonates powerfully and beautifully for me. Still, when the bit that lingers most from an almost 400 page novel is its epigraph, maybe it’s time to search out the inspiration rather than invest more energy teasing out the contradictions of the work it inspired.
You can read the first installment of my encounter with contemporary Israeli writing here. I’m going to have to pick up the pace if I want to be able to come to any meaningful conclusions…