by Benjamin Pogrund
reviewed by Anne Sassoon
Anne Sassoon is a Jerusalem artist.
Here is a tale about a victim of a suicide bomb, set in Jerusalem during the second intifada, which doesn’t touch on politics, doesn’t – except for one marginal character – include Palestinians, and refers to the atmosphere of the time only in a few laconic phrases. But it pungently conveys what it was like for Jerusalemites on the Jewish side of “that shabby, suffering city” during the “gloomy days.”
Its characters express depression, self-questioning and fear of becoming callous in the face of so much indiscriminate death. They want to feel human again: to be good, to feel good about themselves and to be seen as good in the eyes of others – and for some, in the eyes of God.
Again and again the phrase is repeated: We have no choice. It is as if each character is stuck on a treadmill of moral obligation.
Considering the subject, the book is surprisingly entertaining – ironic, funny, even lighthearted – and compared with A.B. Yehoshua’s other works, it is uncharacteristically short and to the point. But the underlying tide of passion that you expect from this author is felt throughout and there is no questioning its authenticity. During the writing of this novel, Yehoshua lost a friend in a suicide bombing at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and two Arab waiters, with whom he used to enjoy conversations, were killed in a suicide attack at a Haifa restaurant. These events convinced him, he says, that what he was writing was “real.”
Simply and factually told, at first the story reads almost like a crime mystery, with an unidentified corpse and a series of stereotypical characters: an autocratic millionaire, a sly journalist, an honest investigator with a seedy personal life. Significantly, only the corpse, Yulia Ragayev, is given a name. She is a migrant worker from an obscure Russian village, a Christian with her own interest in Jerusalem, an outsider killed by a suicide bombing at the market, her body unclaimed at the morgue and only identified by a bloodied pay-slip in her pocket from the bakery which had employed her as a night cleaner.
Accused of neglect and “shocking inhumanity” by the journalist who uncovers the story, the elderly owner of the bakery has an “almost religious impulse” to do right by Yulia and her next of kin in Russia, and he appoints the human resources manager to carry out the job.
Crime mystery gives way to odyssey as the resource manager investigates Yulia’s life, gaining at the same time insight into himself. Accompanied by the journalist, he takes her mummified body home for burial. The use of a Greek Chorus commentary by anonymous bystanders – citizens of Jerusalem, workers at the bakery, young girls, market vendors, peasants – emphasizes the feeling of allegory and adds to the aura of tragedy and apprehension. Piling on the Greekness, the journalist speaks at length about Plato’s discourse on love. There is even a kind of descent to Hades when the resource manager gets violent food poisoning on the trip and recovers in a former underground nuclear shelter.
But if this is something of a Greek tragedy, who is the protagonist? Is it Yulia, mythologized for her exotic beauty and strange Tartar eyes? Her appearance seems to have struck everyone who met her with the exception of the resource manager, who is told by his secretary: “… You live inside yourself like a snail. All you see of beauty or goodness is its shadow….” As the journey continues, he becomes increasingly fascinated with the idea of Yulia and with her teenage son who has inherited her looks.
Or is Jerusalem the tragic heroine of the story?
At the end of the journey, which is also the beginning of the book, the reader is returned to Jerusalem, but it is Jerusalem with its dignity and beauty restored, as seen through the eyes of the Russian outsiders – neither Jew nor Muslim nor Arab – and of the changed and newly reinvigorated resource manager. To him, having solved the case of the badly treated migrant to his personal satisfaction, Jerusalem now seems “softly radiant” and once more “bathed in a glow of importance” as it was in his childhood.