Jerusalem. Wikimedia Commons

The Face of the "Other"

Born in Jerusalem, he later settled in Haifa, where he teaches Comparative Literature at the university. From the beginning, his work has centered on the Arab-Israeli question.
Mimmo Stolfi

“After the Shoa, poetry is a lie.” With this brusque and dramatic statement, the philosopher Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno posited the necessity for a refusal of words and the inevitability of silence as the only alternative to the unheard-of irruption of the inhuman. The extermination of the Jews has taught us that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening and, the next morning, go to his job at Auschwitz, thus putting to rest the Western idea, cultivated from Plato to positivism, that culture is a humanizing force. In light of this premise, at first sight it seems surprising that precisely in Israel in the last fifty years a handful of writers has grown up who have affirmed not only a complete faith in words, but have also claimed an ethical value for literature, criticizing the post-modern nihilism that has reduced European and American writing to an erudite and playful embroidering on top of emptiness. In David Grossman, Amos Oz, Eli Amir, and especially Abraham B Yehoshua, there is an evident recovery of the novel as a vision of the world, as well as the conviction that the moral evolution of a literary character gives greater aesthetic force to the text.

Against the nihilism of silence
In contrast to Adorno, these writers seem to tell us that the diabolical nihilism of horror must not be answered by the nihilism, albeit tragic and deeply suffered, of silence. “I do not hide that I feel that I have been vested with a modest mission: to reawaken interest in the moral aspects of literature,” Yehoshua wrote in his essay, “The Terrible Power of a Minor Guilt.”

Born in Jerusalem in 1936, later settled in Haifa, and currently full Professor of Comparative Literature at the local university, Yehoshua belongs by rights–by virtue of his biographical data and intellectual characteristics–to the generation of “Sabra” writers. These are the poets and prose writers who were the first to describe and interpret the new political and social reality of their country and the first for whom, in this operation, Hebrew was their mother tongue. In his work, the drama of the Arab-Israeli question is central, and has been from the very beginning. In one of Yehoshua’s first stories, the dazzling “In Front of the Woods,” a young Jewish forester discovers that the fire that has destroyed the forest he was watching over was set by an elderly Arab to bring the remains of his house back to light. He understands the drama hidden behind that gesture and becomes an accomplice to it. In this story, the writer denounces the Israeli repression of the Palestinian drama: it is a senseless and dangerous act to grow trees on top of destroyed and abandoned villages in order to wipe out the region’s Arab past.

The “other”
The themes of relationship and otherness, characteristic of the great Jewish twentieth-century philosophers (from Franz Rosenzwig to Martin Buber and Emmanuel Lévinas), have in Yehoshua a meaningful literary counterpart. And in his novels, the “other” often has an Arab face. Examples are the young worker Na’im in The Lover, or Samahar, the Palestinian wife of Professor Rivlin in The Liberating Wife, or Abu Lufti, the Muslim partner of the Jewish merchant Ben Atar in the beautiful A Journey to the End of the Millennium. These characters are different from each other, but all have in common the fact of being a sign of a relationship with their neighbors that takes the form of a generosity that is never satiated. With Levinas, one could say that the “others” in Yehoshua’s novels “obsess” me, ie, they make me uneasy and call me into question, forcing me to assume responsibility for them. “The face asks me and orders me… Nearness is not a state, a quietness, but, precisely, disquiet.” Obsessed by others, I become immediately responsible for everything that can happen to them, to the point of feeling obligated to put myself in their place, to the point of “substituting” for others.

The Widower Molcho
Through responsibility that reaches the point of substitution, I become a “hostage” of others, in a lopsided relationship of responsibility–independent of the fact that the other might feel responsible for me (“the reverse,” Lévinas writes, “is his business”). This vision of the other, clearly derived from the Bible, pervades every page of The Five Seasons, one of Yehoshua’s most intense novels. The author tells the story of what happens to a widower, Molcho, who always has to rethink himself in relationship with others, whether they be Arabs or newly immigrated Jews, who bring with them splinters of unknown worlds. The meaning of life and its enigma, Yehoshua seems to be telling us, lies precisely in this continuous comparison with the “other,” the “different,” the “foreign.” Molcho’s tender affection for a proud little Indian girl powerfully seals this heart–rending conviction.

Journalist and essayist
Yehoshua is also known for his ethical and civic commitment, expressed in numerous journalistic articles and a couple of essays, “In Praise of Normality,” and “Diary of a Cold Peace.” Yehoshua the essayist contrasts sharply with the Balzac–like composure of Yehoshua the narrator. Impassioned, contradictory, uneven, he embodies the terrible difficulty of those who struggle in a world torn apart by constant lacerations and disconcerted by the alternation between great hopes and crushing disappointments. After a sensational polemic in 1988 against the indifference of the Israelis to the harsh military repression of the Arabs on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (which he compared to that of the Germans against the Jews during Nazism), he moved after the failure of the Oslo Agreement to proposing to build a wall to separate the Palestinians and Israelis. After harshly criticizing for years the policies of the Jewish right, today he defends Sharon’s aggressiveness. These turnabouts are perhaps understandable in someone who lives a seemingly interminable drama on the front line. And yet, the rage and bitterness of the intellectual does not stand in the way of the great writer who in The Lover has the Palestinian Na’im and the Jew Defi fall in love. He hopes in his heart of hearts that one day love will win out.