A professor faces culture clash in Israel

Melvin Jules Bukiet, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, is the author of numerous books, including "A Faker's Dozen," a story collection.

In 1998, when Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua began his latest novel, "The Liberated Bride," there was still such a thing as a "peace process" in the Middle East. By 2001, when he finished it, the peace had proceeded to hell in a handbasket. But circumstances in the Middle East change day by day. Last August it appeared there was a glimmer of progress via the so-called road map. Now, upon the book's English language publication, the "road map" already seems doomed. Yehoshua's mosaic of Israeli emotional and academic life points at some of the reasons for plausible success and, perhaps, inevitable doom.

The book begins with Yohanon Rivlin, a 60-year-old professor of Arab, especially Algerian, history and culture at the University of Haifa. Rivlin is a guest at the wedding of a Muslim Arab student. Unfortunately, the joyousness of the nuptials ignites Rivlin's simmering despair over the dissolution of his son Ofer's marriage five years earlier. Ofer and his former wife, Galya, had been married only briefly when something went horribly, mysteriously wrong. It's the mystery as much as the divorce and Ofer's subsequent self-exile in Paris that torments Rivlin. After all, he's "a historian who has to understand everything."

While Rivlin broods, we meet his wife, Hagit, a district judge; some of his university colleagues; the bride, Samaher; and her mother, Afifa, a student of Rivlin's decades earlier. Like mother like daughter, neither Afifa then nor Samaher now finishes her course work.

Note that the operative principle in Yehoshua's sprawling narrative is truncation. Whether it's a marriage or a false pregnancy or a tenure track contract or a baby step toward geopolitical sanity, a host of promising starts ends in naught. There is always hope, and it is always thwarted.

The sense of insufficiency extends in one direction from professor Rivlin to his students and in the other to his elderly mentor Carlo Tedeschi, an Italian Jew who fled Europe just before the Holocaust. Tedeschi is a hypochondriac who seems to spend as much time in a hospital bed as in his home. Even Tedeschi's wife, Hannah, abandoned her career as a translator to become the "loyal impresario of his illnesses."

Visiting Tedeschi, Rivlin hears about two others whose lives were cut short. The first "surprise corpse" is Yosef Suissa, a young collector of North African folk tales, murdered in a bus bombing. Suissa's scholarly work informs Rivlin's investigation of the psychological origins of Algerian terror. The second is Ofer's former father-in-law, Yehuda Hendel, the memory of whom further spurs Rivlin's suffering over Ofer's divorce.

Rivlin spontaneously decides to pay a condolence call at the Hendel family-owned hotel, but this is merely an excuse. Desperate to learn what precipitated the divorce, Rivlin confronts the mourning Galya and her sister Tehila, and tries to elicit sympathy in his quest by claiming that he has a fatal disease. During the same visit, he encounters Fu'ad, the hotel's Arab major-domo, who seems to hold -- and withhold -- the key to the puzzle.

Aside from parenthood, biological or intellectual, what links most of these people is their common interest in culture. Despite the madness that surrounds them, they pray that art and goodwill will provide anchorage in a universe drifting into bedlam. Indeed, a later pivotal scene occurs at the Palestinian equivalent of a poetry slam in Ramallah that includes a spectacularly evocative Arab version of the Yiddish play "The Dybbuk."

But culture is inadequate in the face of what is referred to in Israel as "the situation," which permeates all aspects of everyday life. To get to the poetry festival, people must pass through checkpoints, and even though the organizers are determined to restrict the entries to love poems, several participants find ways to snake in their political anger and resentment. Similarly, Rivlin and Samaher's teacher-student relationship is colored by the fact that he is a Jew and she is a Muslim Arab.

Straddling the boundary between his naturalistic depiction of ordinary lives and a region's life-and-death struggle, Yehoshua embodies Rivlin's perception on reading Suissa's legends: "The amount of fiction and poetry in old North African newspapers and publications from the nineteen-fifties and sixties was amazing. It left the impression that the Arabs of the Maghreb had cared less for their struggle for independence than for their own private lives -- their personal loves, friendships, and griefs, and the villages and landscapes they inhabited."

The many stories told here about love and friendship and grief reflect off one another, yet no single story ever steps forward to give the book a focus. At one point the straightforward narrative is broken by a strangely interpolated tale about the accidental death of the nephew of Samaher's cousin Rashid during a late-night hunt for a mystical "lambcat." Even the secret behind Ofer and Galya's divorce begins to feel like a red herring because of its long-delayed -- and therefore long-expected -- revelation at the end. The final effect is like a collage in which the discrete elements only incidentally share the same framework.

Still one keeps reading, because the language, elegantly rendered in Hillel Halkin's translation, portrays daily life with wry tenderness. After the Rivlins argue about his intervention in their son's affairs, Hagit points out that although no one in her family ever spoke about sex or death, such reticence "[n]ever kept anyone from having children or dying." Later, Rivlin listens to his wife's "musical snores." When a snore is musical, love must be true. It's moments like this that are Yehoshua's strength.

Unfortunately, there are far too many of them, and the reiterations (Rivlin's third visit to the Hendel hotel, the fourth of Suissa's legends, the 10th or 12th time Tedeschi is referred to as "the Jerusalem polymath") become tiresome. Equally disconcerting, Yehoshua's excess occasionally turns to dearth when some events that we have been led to believe will become significant -- Rivlin's lie about his fatal disease -- are never revisited.

Laxness also describes the style of the book, as when its voice shifts without explanation from third to second person ("you find yourself defending the political acrobatics of a right-wing prime minister you didn't vote for") and then reverts to the original third person. You just scratch your head.

Clearly the intent of this often lovely, often probing hodgepodge is to convey the random nature of life under strain, yet there's a difference between conveying randomness and conveying it randomly. Despite the fortuitous notes that Yehoshua strikes on virtually every page, his panoramic novel ultimately fails to cohere into a unified whole. "The Liberated Bride" is the book of a master storyteller who can't decide which story to tell.

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