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December 13, 2020 in Library Corner
By Robin Jacobson.
Here’s literary news to celebrate: new novels from two of Israel’s best-known authors – A.B. Yehoshua and Eshkol Nevo – have arrived in American bookstores and libraries in English translation.
The Tunnel by A.B. Yehoshua
Widely acclaimed as one of the giants of Israeli literature, A.B. Yehoshua was born in Jerusalem in 1936. He has written 12 novels as well as short stories, plays, and essays, and has won numerous prestigious prizes and awards.
In Yehoshua’s latest novel, The Tunnel, we meet Zvi Luria, a retired engineer for the Israel Roads Authority, happily married for 48 years to Dina, a hospital pediatrician. Dina encourages Zvi to volunteer as an unpaid assistant to a young road engineer. Luria has been showing early signs of dementia, and Dina wants him to keep his mind active by reengaging with his former career, something Luria’s neurologist recommended.
Dementia is not an upbeat diagnosis, but the couple approach it with humor and love. When Luria mistakenly shops twice for tomatoes, he cheerfully uses up the excess vegetables by cooking a huge pot of shakshuka. When he picks up the wrong little boy at his grandson’s school, he is embarrassed, but later forms a personal bond with the child. Besides, it soon becomes apparent that with Luria’s memory issues Yehoshua is playing with metaphors. In interviews, Yehoshua has suggested that Israeli society, which highly values remembrance of the past, might benefit from a little forgetfulness.
Luria begins assisting Asael Maimoni, an Israeli Roads engineer tasked with planning a secret military road near the Ramon Crater (Makhtesh Ramon) in the Negev Desert. This exotic geologic setting adds to the book’s appeal. The construction project has a comic aspect; everyone Maimoni and Luria encounter seems to already know about the supposedly hush-hush plan to build a secret road. A better-kept secret is that a Palestinian family is hiding on a hill on the route of the intended road. For convoluted reasons, the family can neither return to their West Bank home nor live openly in Israel. Rather than bulldoze the hill, Maimoni proposes to construct a tunnel under it. Tunnels, like Luria’s memory, serve as metaphors in this intriguing story.
The Last Interview by Eshkol Nevo
Born in Jerusalem in 1971, Eshkol Nevo is named for his grandfather, Levi Eshkol, Israel’s third prime minister. A best-selling novelist, Nevo is also a co-founder of Israel’s largest creative writing school.
The Last Interview is about an Israeli author who, though unnamed, seems much like Nevo. The novel unfolds in interview format. The narrator/protagonist answers questions posed by the editor of an internet site. Although the novel starts as a witty parody of a typical Q&A session, it quickly evolves into a revealing portrait of the narrator and his life as a writer. Describing himself as a “compulsive storyteller,” the narrator habitually blurs the boundary between truth and fiction. This way of engaging with the world fuels his writing but complicates his personal relationships.
The narrator is at an unhappy crossroads, fearing abandonment by the core people in his life. He worries that a beloved childhood friend will die of cancer, that his wife may leave him, and that his teenage daughter, who elected to go to boarding school rather than live at home, may remain estranged. Meanwhile, book tours and public readings take the narrator to diverse locations – the West Bank, Syria, Singapore, Minnesota – prompting him to reflect in unexpected ways on his identity as an Israeli writer.