Early in the novel, “Second Person Singular,” a main character known throughout the book as “the lawyer” reads a note in his wife’s handwriting. “I waited for you, but you didn’t come,” the note says. “I hope everything’s all right. I wanted to thank you for last night. It was wonderful. Call me tomorrow?”
The sense of intimacy leaps off the page. But the note was not written for the lawyer. It fell out of a copy of Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata” he had just bought from a used-book store. The words were meant for someone else, and the discovery uncorks the lawyer’s bottled-up insecurities, pushing him to near madness as he convinces himself that his loving wife is a faithless adulterer.
We know the lawyer’s leap to conclusion is irrational. And at first, it’s a bothersome step into this new novel by Sayed Kashua, an Arab journalist in Jerusalem who writes in Hebrew (this is the American version, translated by Mitch Ginsburg of a work first published in 2010). It’s hard to buy that someone with the intellectual training to become a leading criminal defense lawyer would tumble to such depths of delusion based on an unexplained note.
But then, nothing is what it seems in Kashua’s look at the subtleties of contemporary life in Jerusalem. Soon, we realize, the lawyer’s professional and financial success obscures a troubled soul.
“Second Person Singular” follows two tracks, one in the third person following the lawyer, the other in the first person by Amir Lahab, a poor Arab from the occupied territories who moves to Jerusalem to study and become a social worker. The lawyer, too, is from a small village in the territories, and as their stories unfold, it becomes clear each is trying to leave not only class, but a large part of their Arabic heritage behind.
Amir lands a job as a caretaker for a comatose Jew about his own age, working the overnight hours in the young man’s house shared with his wealthy mother. Plot paths emerge: The comatose young man’s name is inscribed in the book from which the troublesome note has fallen.
To reveal more would be to reveal too much, at least of the plot. The two men will meet, and the note will become explained. But the plot here is merely the vehicle through which Kashua keenly dissects issues of identity and class.
Both the lawyer and Amir leave their villages in flights from their pasts, and as steps to different futures. The lawyer is the more transparent of the two. Ambitious to a fault, he works hard to become accepted among upper-class Arabs in Israel, and by Jews, as well. Though his rise as a criminal defense lawyer isn’t driven by a social conscience. He has constructed a persona, pursued his career simply because it buys him the social access and acceptance he so craves.
A liberal in conversation with the self-important crowd with which he socializes (premarital sex is fine, gays should be treated as equals, women are victims across the Arab world), the small-town traditionalist within bubbles to the surface when he talks himself into being a cuckold.
“Experience had taught him that he was a conservative,” Kashua writes. “Yes, a conservative, and from now on he would not be apologetic about it… Only now, for the first time in his life, did he understand what honor meant. He, who spoke out against and even lectured now and again about honor killings… now saw the error of his ways. He wished someone from her family would kill her.”
Amir, by contrast, is driven less by ambition than a fear of returning to his village and his mother’s scandal-wracked past. He goes one step further than the lawyer in trying to create a new sense of self: He assumes another identity completely, begins to speak only Hebrew, and forges a career in Jerusalem as a Jew.
Kashua’s dry wit shines throughout (though some of the passages drag), with each of the main characters offering windows into the prejudices and longings of Arabs and Jews. Kashua’s strength lies in burrowing into the role of artifice in both of the main characters’ constructions of their external personalities. Location here is secondary to dissecting human impulses.
In fact, Kashua’s story could easily be moved to the U.S., with the Arab protagonists replaced by black men seeking to “pass” in a white culture. The themes are universal in a world in which every culture, it seems, has an “other” against which to play out prejudice, and feelings of supremacy.
Martelle is the author most recently of “Detroit: A Biography.”