Funeral Rites

Reviewed by Warren Bass
Sunday, September 3, 2006


A Novel

By A.B. Yehoshua

Translated from the Hebrew by Hillel Halkin

Harcourt. 237 pp. $25

It is a typically unfunny Middle Eastern irony that A.B. Yehoshua's entrancing new novel seems to have had its genesis as an exercise in imaginative sympathy about the terror-traumatized citizens of Jerusalem, written by probably the most famous resident of the comparatively tranquil city of Haifa. A Woman in Jerusalem then wound up being published in English at precisely the moment that Jerusalemites' hearts were going out to Haifa residents huddling in their bomb shelters beneath barrages of Hezbollah rockets. But while the novel is always aware of the sorrows of modern Israel, it soars on wry, wise wings far above the battered landscape.

How battered? Well, the heroine is a corpse: Yulia Ragayev, a fortyish, lovely, lonely worker in a Jerusalem bakery who's mortally wounded in a terrorist bombing in the city market, dies in a hospital after two days of solitude and then is left "in the hospital morgue abandoned and unidentified, her fate unmourned and her burial unprovided for." A muckraking local newspaper finds that she was identified only by her pay stub and assails the bakery for heartlessness in an exposé entitled "The Shocking Inhumanity Behind Our Daily Bread." The firm's wealthy old owner tells his melancholy human resource manager -- "a stocky man with a hard, weary face" -- to try to make amends by finding out what went wrong and by giving Yulia a proper funeral. (The novel's original title, translated from the Hebrew, is The Mission of the Human Resource Manager .) "At a time when pedestrians were routinely exploding in the streets," Yehoshua writes, "troubled consciences turned up in the oddest places."

A Woman in Jerusalem is a book about a mission and a memorial. Yulia is the only character to receive a name here; her son, ex-husband and mother are identified only by their roles, as are the human resource manager's daughter, mother and ex-wife, the bakery's owner, various bureaucrats and the odious, plot-triggering journalist himself, who is known throughout as "the weasel." This namelessness summons up memories of Israel's most famous memorial, the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem, which takes its name from Isaiah 56:5, in which we are told that God will give those who cleave to Israel's covenant "a hand and a name." That includes, the prophet notes, strangers who join themselves to God, who will also have their sacrifices accepted upon the altar built on Jerusalem's holy mountain -- strangers, it seems, such as Yulia, a mechanical engineer of never entirely established Jewishness who immigrated to Israel from a nameless realm of the former Soviet Union. Yehoshua gives her a name, and the human resource manager tries, however belatedly, to give her a loving hand. To a wily old humanist like Yehoshua, there are no marginal deaths, no acceptable losses.

This may sound gloomy, but this dreamlike book turns out to be anything but: It's lively, fleet, sometimes funny and ultimately hopeful. Some of Yehoshua's older concerns -- such as the misgivings of Palestinians living in awkward proximity to the Jewish state, a major theme of his splendid previous novel The Liberated Bride -- are touched on in brilliantly light asides, such as the glimpse inside the mind of a young Arab dishwasher who's eager to sleep in the bakery's deserted cafeteria "without having to worry about the three humiliating checkpoints he had to pass through" to return to his West Bank village.

The book's faintly surreal quality persists as the human resource manager tries to make sense of Yulia's life. She turns out to be a largely ignored figure in the holy center of the world -- a woman in Jerusalem, not necessarily of it. The human resource manager's quest leads him inexorably to Yulia's birthland, a sort of anonymous Absurdistan still unnerved by Cold War fears of planetary annihilation. It is a deliberate step out of sacred time and space; the human resource manager's flight even leaves on Friday night, winging him away from Israel's day of Shabbat rest. And here, amid the "black slush," "low, leaden sky" and "arctic cold," he takes on a new essence: The human resource manager is now frequently referred to as "the emissary," a man sent to atone for our common coldness, an envoy dispatched a world away from Jerusalem's heat and light and violence to affirm that those who are murdered callously must not be mourned casually.

The result is a small masterpiece, a compact, strange work of Chekhovian grace, grief, wit and compassion. "I'd like a yes or no answer: are we guilty or not?" the bakery owner asks at one point. "Responsible is more like it," the human resource manager replies. "Responsible for what?" the old man wants to know. "I'll tell you later," replies the emissary. ·

Warren Bass is a senior editor of Book World.

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