Halban Publishers, 2010
A.B. Yehoshua’s ninth novel, albeit more modest in scale than some of his most celebrated works, is in many ways as captivating and provocative as anything that Israel’s second-most celebrated living writer has produced. Comprising the parallel narratives of middle-aged married couple Amotz and Daniela Ya’ari as they endure a rare separation over the Hannukah holiday, Friendly Fire: A Duet reaffirms Yehoshua’s considerable gift for delineating the intricacies of intimate familial relations, in their strifeful and ennobling aspects, and abounds with vivid scenes loaded with symbolic meaning.
The story finds Daniela temporarily extricated from the protective ministrations of her husband as she visits her septeguenarian brother-in-law Yirmiyahu, who has established himself as a consultant on an anthropological dig in Tanzania. The pair are united by mutual grief, and share a special bond stretching back to Daniela’s childhood, when her natural affinity towards the young man had eased and hastened his courtship of her sister Shuli. It is to restore her connection to Shuli, who passed away in Tanzania some two years since – some time after the devastating loss of her and Yirmiyahu’s son Eyal in a ‘friendly fire’ incident on his national service – that Daniela travels to the east African country for the second time. Amotz, meanwhile, is left in Tel Aviv to tend to his work affairs – principally, trying to appease and address the concerns of the residents of a tower block, who are tormented by the moaning sounds that emanate from the lift he has designed, when the wind blows – and an extra load of familial responsibilities that fall to his lot in his temporarily wifeless condition. These include babysitting his boisterous young grandchildren, who are left in the hands of his beautiful and feckless daughter-in-law Efrat when his son Moran is taken into the army custody for dodging his reserve duty, and reluctantly delving into the love life of his ailing elderly father, eagerly egged on by his daughter Nofar.
The narrative switches throughout between short chapters following Daniela’s and Amotz’s respective experiences and, in Stuart Schoffman’s translation, crackles with energy and dynamism. Despite this regimented structure, it is impossible to divide the novel into an ‘Israeli half’ and an ‘African half’, such is the thematic unity of the whole, and such is the situation of the protagonists’ consciousness as its central locus. The crass term ‘friendly fire’, carelessly dropped by Amotz as he brought the terrible news of Eyal’s death to Yirmiyahu (with consequences he could not have begun to foresee) becomes a kind of symbolic touchstone for the psychic menage of the married couple and their in-law, casting its ironic pall over the campfires that Yirmiyahu shares with his African colleagues and the Hannukah candles that Amotz lights with his relatives in his wife’s absence, and upon her reunion with him at the novel’s close. The sense of Amotz and Daniela’s relationship drawing towards an elevated plateau over the turbulent course of their short separation is powerfully delineated by the critical parallel moments that pull them towards the tragic figure of Eyal. The tone for Daniela’s tempestuous relationship with Yirmiyahu is set by him with melodramatic panache as, within moments of her arrival, he casts the Israeli newspapers and Hannukah candles she has brought with her onto the fire, to announce his having self-consciously withdrawn from Israeli and Jewish affairs – a decision whose severe force and earnestness she will not fully appreciate until her visit is almost over. Their relationship veers dangerously towards breaking point as, gradually, she coaxes from him the full, bathetic story of the military blunder that cost him and Shuli their son. Their relationship is further charged with an unacknowledged erotic tension, as is (albeit it of a rather more one-sided order) that of Amotz and Efrat, who relates to him her suggestion – firmly but not unkindly rebuffed by Yirmiyahu – of naming her and Moran’s son after Eyal, soon after Daniela has learnt of the same episode from Yirmiyahu’s lips; the psychological acuity with which Yehoshua draws these relationships in such critical moments, and the vitality of the often intensely compelling dialogue, certainly justify the comparison of his work with Faulkner’s that is so frequently drawn by critics.
The grief-ravaged Yirmiyahu may well identify with Stephen Dedalus’s famous maxim, ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’. And it is with a genuine sense of awakening that we absorb the novel’s cautiously optimistic conclusion, that delivers us from the agonies of grief and the sound and fury of conflict and contention, into the vibrancy of ordinary Israeli life in its fullness, with its everday banalities and splendours, to which Yirmiyahu has closed his heart.
It is infinitely to Yehoshua’s credit as an artist that he is always able to engage themes of political and religious sensitivity in fashions that are as surprising as they are direct, without ever losing the critical sense of objective detachment that separates the genuinely serious novelist from the pseudo-literary impostor. Our opinions of his (frequent and frank) public pronouncements on politics, that is to say, do not need to impinge upon our appreciation of his fiction, which can – and should – be enjoyed by all constituencies. His friend and countryman Amos Oz may have grown accustomed to being touted as a Nobel laureate in waiting, but Friendly Fire does no harm whatsoever to the case of those of us who feel that Yehoshua should be a nose in front of him where that honour is concerned.