Why decency matters in troubled times

The struggle to give an anonymous beauty a proper burial.

A suicide bomb attack sounds like an obvious topic for a novel set in modern Jerusalem. But there's nothing obvious about the new novel A Woman in Jerusalem by award-winning Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua ("The Liberated Bride").

For one thing, the bombing, which likely would be the climax of a lesser novel, is over and done with a week before the story begins. A middle-aged woman who was injured in the attack has died, and her body remains unclaimed and unidentified at the morgue.

A journalist discovers a pay stub from a local bakery in her purse and writes a blistering article, "The Shocking Inhumanity of Our Daily Bread," accusing her employer of extreme callousness in not making arrangements for her funeral, or even noticing that she had died.

As workplace exposés go, this one is hardly going to replace Enron. "Nevertheless, at a time when pedestrians were routinely exploding in the streets, troubled consciences turned up in the oddest places."

The bakery's elderly owner, shamed by the piece, demands that his human resources manager discover the woman's identity, find out why nobody reported her missing, and make reparations.

The manager (whose name we never learn) makes short work of the first two questions with a little investigative work and the help of his secretary.

The woman's name was Yulia Ragayev, a mechanical engineer from a former Soviet Republic, who had been working as a cleaning lady on the night shift.

What's not in her slim human resources file was that she was so beautiful that, even dead, she inspires extraordinary concern in others.

No one noticed Yulia's absence for the simple reason that she had stopped working at the bakery a month before the bombing. Neither the owner nor the journalist is willing to let the matter rest there, however. An irritated human resources manager finds himself excoriated in print, and then appointed the dead woman's escort back to her homeland.

His irritation fades, however, and he finds himself increasingly moved by his quest and the woman who inspired it. As his mission gets more and more improbable, the manager (who is recently divorced and isolated from his only daughter) finds a subtle spiritual renewal as he crosses frozen rivers to reunite what's left of Yulia's family for her funeral.

As if to make up for her anonymity in life, Yulia is the only one named in the novel. The symbolic device works to create the atmosphere of a fable or folk tale, but can also be somewhat muffling. This is especially true once the human resources manager heads for the nameless European country, which is a mishmash of peasants, frozen landscapes, and the remains of the Soviet military complex.

There are italicized asides by people who observe the human resources manager on his mission. These voices serve – not particularly effectively – as a kind of Greek chorus.

Yehoshua seems to have deliberately detached "A Woman in Jerusalem" from daily life, to better explore people's moral obligations to one another. I don't know anybody who expects their employer to pay for their funeral – many workers would just be grateful for a raise that outpaces inflation. (Still, I kept wishing the bakery owner would take some of the resources lavished on the dead woman and give his living cleaning women a bonus. Since Yulia was living in a one-room shack in someone's backyard, her coworkers could probably use some extra cash.)

But Yehoshua is examining a deeper question: what does it mean to be human – humane – especially during troubled times? Does violence in the streets crowd out the need for compassion, or do the so-called "gentler emotions" take on an added urgency just when they might seem like extra frills compared with the struggle for survival?

Or, as the human resources manager demands of the journalist, "When Jerusalem is burning, does any of this matter?" The answer for both the author and his main character seems to be: "more than ever."

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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