Intricate Human History
Israeli author's layered novel tells of one Jewish family's survival
`EVERY thought has its pocket, and in every pocket is another thought." These proverbial-sounding words, spoken by one of the characters in A. B. Yehoshua's latest novel, might well stand as its epigraph. Like a Russian doll containing a nest of ever-smaller dolls, one inside the other, "Mr. Mani" peels away layers, leading the reader backward in time to retrace the history of a family of Sephardic Jews, the Manis, from the present day to the middle of the last century.
"Mr. Mani," however, has very little in common with the kind of family saga that narrates the rise and fall of a dynasty, complete with generational conflicts, sibling rivalry, and heartwarming reconciliations.
Yehoshua, an internationally acclaimed Israeli writer whose works include "The Lover," "A Late Divorce," and "Five Seasons," tells this story in a deliberately oblique and complicated way that illustrates his vision of human history as an intricate web of accident, intent, and interconnectedness too complex for any one person to comprehend in its totality.
The novel is structured as a series of five conversations, in which the reader gets to hear only one of the two people conversing.
The first conversation takes place in modern-day Israel. A young woman called Hagar, an Israeli student whose father was killed in the Six Day War, is telling her mother about her affair with a young man called Efrayim Mani and her very peculiar encounter with Efrayim's father, Gavriel, who lives in Jerusalem. Having been asked by her boyfriend to convey a message to his father, Hagar goes to surprising lengths to track him down, only to find him alone in a dark apartment trying to commit suicide. As she
tries to explain to her skeptical mother, Hagar feels she has become part of a much bigger story that she doesn't fully understand. Her fortuitous arrival may well have saved the father's life, while her relationship with the son will result in the birth of a child.
The Mani family surfaces next at an earlier stage, in a conversation held in 1944 on the island of Crete between a German officer and his adoptive grandmother, a distinguished war widow. At this point, the suicidal Gavriel Mani of Hagar's story is a small child, and the focus is on the two preceding Mr. Manis: the boy's grandfather Yosef, who offers himself as a hostage to the German officer, and the boy's father (another Efrayim), who tells the German he has canceled his own Jewishness. The German, oddl y, feels encouraged by the idea that Jews might thus provide their own solution to the "Jewish problem." But when this "canceled Jew" refuses to let the German round up his (presumably still Jewish) wife and little son for deportation, the German sends him off in their place for the crime of aiding and abetting Jews.
The third conversation, set in Jerusalem 1918, is the monologue of a Jewish British officer in the advocate-general's corps, who is briefing his superior (non-Jewish) officer on the background of a case against a Palestinian Jew caught passing British secrets to the Turks. The man, of course, is none other than Mr. Yosef Mani, father of the "canceled Jew" Efrayim. Yosef is a man of confused and divided loyalties, who tries to awaken the as-yet unsuspecting Palestinian Arabs to the need of getting a natio nal identity so that they and the Jews will be able to establish independent countries in the wake of the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
In the fourth conversation, set in 1899, a young Polish Jewish doctor explains to his father why he and his sister paid an unexpected visit to Jerusalem itself, when they were only supposed to be going to a Zionist conference in Switzerland. At the conference, they met a doctor from Jerusalem named Moshe Mani (father of Yosef), who begged them to return with him to his clinic for expectant mothers.
"I was drawn to him," the Polish Jewish doctor explains, "... because he ... seemed ... the complete antithesis to everything around him ... [t]o all of us." A man of strange vitality and intensity, Moshe Mani is driven to destroy himself for love - or perhaps he embarks on a hopeless grand passion as an excuse for self-destruction.
The man responsible for Moshe Mani's existence, his grandfather Avraham Mani, is both speaker and protagonist of the fifth and final conversation that takes place in 1848.
Avraham's story, told to his revered, aging rabbi, is the confession of a sinful, yet seemingly necessary, action that he took to ensure his family's survival. He impregnated the wife of his own son (another Yosef Mani), who had died without issue, having spent most of his time in a vain attempt to convince the local Palestinians that they were Jews without knowing it.
Behind each Mr. Mani stands another Mr. Mani: each distinct and different from the one before him, but all sharing the quality of seeming odd to those who meet them. Although this is a novel about fathers and sons, it portrays almost nothing of father-son relationships.
Each Mr. Mani is a lonely link on a chain of procreation and survival in the face of a hostile world - in the face, even, of this family's own self-destructive tendencies. It seems safe to conclude as well that Mr. Mani, the exotic Sephardic Jew, the perpetual odd man out, is nonetheless a representative man, not only of the Jewish people, but of the quirky human race as a whole.
Yehoshua is a virtuoso when it comes to replicating the speaking styles of his various narrators: the intimate, yet irritable voice of the girl talking to her mother; the insane, driven "logic" of the Nazi; the clipped tones of the British Jewish officer; and the flowery, exaggeratedly humble posture of Avraham Mani appealing to - and subtly bullying - the elderly rabbi.
But, for all the ambitiousness of Yehoshua's concept and the complexity of his narrative technique, the sensibilities of the characters are surprisingly crude and the author's treatment of his themes is heavy-handed. Having waded through the labyrinth of the Manis' family history, the reader may feel some sense of accomplishment but is not likely to have enjoyed the trip very much, nor to have learned anything beyond the obvious from this journey through obscurity.