The Quality of Hurt

A coupling of cruelty and sentimentality introduces "Housebroken," the title story of Yael Hedaya's three novellas of remarkable emotional power. A dog tears off an old woman's ear; a man watches a baby cradled in the soapy warmth of its bath. The writer proposes a game: Why this cinematic juxtaposition with its suggestion of incompatible stories? And why, from the very outset, should the reader be more concerned with the fate of the dog than with the sensibility of the man? Because the dog in this fable, a stray domesticated by the man and a woman, has returned to his feral nature. And the man? The man is, as we say when citing our frailty, only human.

"He was thirty-three years old and felt he was tired of his own rules, games and negotiations." It is all so ordinary--his exhausted self-concern, the vague longing for a home, a romanticized idea of "children," that life that lies beyond the bachelor apartment, the distressing blind dates and humiliating sexual encounters. He knows it, and she knows it, the woman he will live with after excruciating feints and dodges. The man and the woman are never given names. The dog, when he must be registered and tagged, is called "Anonymous." These nameless characters take their place in Hedaya's design, for in "Housebroken" and the two tales that follow, lost souls searching for connection refer to their situation as banal. Without the dog, the cliched story would have little drama. Indeed, the only flaws in this collection are the longueurs of the affair in "Housebroken," the squabbles and rekindling of affection that strain to become a love affair.

The dog, a pawn in an attempt at family, is so thoroughly incorporated into human folly that he speaks of his desires, his memories as in Aesop or La Fontaine. The effect is darkly comic. Hedaya is a journalist who writes a humor column for an Israeli newspaper, but in her novellas she is not spinning off the cotton candy of Bridget Jones. There is some hunting and fishing in "The Happiness Game," even rules for dating to be broken as carelessly as hearts are broken, but that worn track is countered by a more compelling story. The elderly mother of a daughter (thirtysomething, seeking love) decides that she has never been cherished and must divorce her husband of many years. To all parties, except the old girl, the situation is ridiculous, if not mad. Hedaya avoids what might become a sitcom installment. Maya, the daughter, hears her father sniffling: "I'm tired," he said. "I'm not sad so much as tired. All this running back and forth to the Rabbinate, at my age. Who's got the strength for it?"

Though strangely amusing, the parents' story in "The Happiness Game" is suffused with pathos. The specter of the father's first marriage hovers over the years of accommodation. So we have a triangle, a formula adroitly played off against the daughter's yearlong sexual encounter with a man who has a long-standing arrangement with a sweet thing off the kibbutz. Maya is an intellectual. Nathan, her lover, works in a nursery. Attuned to the realities of the natural world, he is bewildered by Maya's expectations of romantic love. Indeed, their story is over at the outset of the story, as it has been in "Housebroken." The unraveling of the plot, with its painful discoveries and the end of the affair, is beautifully set up in an opening passage:

"A few minutes after he had left, a strange thing happened: hundreds of black birds appeared out of nowhere and swooped down on the old palm tree across the street and polished off the dates hanging from it in bunches--the dates he said had to be picked because they were not good for the tree, they weighted it down and they suffocated it, and that little by little they would kill it." This knowledge is the unlettered man's, but it is told by the woman who fully comprehends the imagery of survival.

The imprint of early love is a theme repeated in the somber threnody "Matti." The wife, the lost girl and Matti, who is dying of a brain tumor, are all given voice in what must necessarily be an endgame. The girl, Alona, was half his age, and underage, at the time of their mutual seduction. What the wife understands, even as she plays the perfect hostess, is the girl's haunting place in her marriage. "I could feel her breath in his silence which continued all evening and I wondered: How come nobody else hears her little wings beating against the furniture? How come they don't see her sitting with her legs crossed on top of the bookcase, laughing at all of us?"

As "Matti" nears the end, the two women meet. The melodrama of the moment is undercut by the inevitable fact of his silence. Alona, who has roamed the world, faces the wife and mother of his children in a skewed scene of reconciliation. The final operatic pages of "Matti" are pared down to a moving duet, past and present intermingling. The women's voices claim the lover, the husband. I will not give the game away, by revealing which woman in Hedaya's extraordinary story claims the day. Her love stories manque are an exploration of the fractured bourgeois dream of domestic bliss. She has written three tales, fabulous in nature, of our housebroken estate, stories in which ordinary people confront the limitations of passion and the adaptations of love.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°