From the cover art for "The Tunnel" by A.B. Yehoshua.
From the cover art for "The Tunnel" by A.B. Yehoshua.

New Israeli novels explore the weight of memory

Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.

Memory informs every aspect of Jewish existence. The late historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, who argued that Jews have always privileged memory over history, posited that “it is possible to see Judaism itself as a technology of memory, a set of practices designed to make the past present.”

The meaning of Jewish memory was very much on my mind in reading two newly translated works of Israeli fiction, and, in particular, Yishai Sarid’s “The Memory Monster.” Sarid’s short novel takes the form of a lengthy letter written by a historian to his former employer at Yad Vashem, Israel’s institution devoted to studying and memorializing the Holocaust.

Cover of “The Memory Monster” by Yishai SaridHaving entered the field of Holocaust studies rather accidentally, the narrator became an expert on concentration camps, writing his doctoral dissertation on the Nazis’ methods of murder. While in graduate school, he began making a living as a guide for visiting Israeli students, military officers and dignitaries at the sites of slaughter in Poland.

The letter, written as an explanation following a troubling incident, reveals the narrator’s gradual unraveling.

Taking an apartment in Warsaw, he spends much of his life away from his wife and son and becomes increasingly unkempt. His increasingly provocative utterances about the Holocaust alienate his tour groups. And when he is at home in Israel, he takes an unwisely aggressive approach to solving the problem of his son being bullied in preschool. Like a drinker who cannot hold his alcohol, the dispassionate academic historian appears to be unable to carry the burden of his knowledge without bending under its emotional weight.

Sarid depicts how these issues surface not only at the individual level, but at the national one. Recollection of the Holocaust is a core value of the State of Israel, and many moments in the book point to a problematic relationship to that memory.

The narrator himself is bothered by a variety of warped responses among some of the Israeli visitors to the horrors he is teaching them about. They include a tendency to demonize the Poles, while sparing the Germans who were responsible for the apparatus of annihilation; expressions of disdain for Jewish victims, complemented by admiration for the effectiveness of their slaughterers (an admiration that the narrator occasionally seems to share); and even remarks suggesting the Nazis as models in approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.The implication is that for a people who experienced utter powerlessness during the Nazi era, the enduring lessons about power and the use of force can remain complicated and unsettling.

One of the book’s most striking episodes occurs when the narrator is hired as a consultant, to an Israeli delegation visiting Poland, to plan the logistics of a symbolic military rescue operation at one of the death camps. This project seems to reflect a need for assurance that military power will prevent Jews from experiencing a similar state of vulnerability again. But if it takes the form of a theatrical reenactment of a rescue that never was, is the effort meant to learn from the memory or to rewrite it?

Memory takes on a different role in “The Tunnel,” the latest novel from A.B. Yehoshua, who, at 83, is one of the last great Israeli writers from the generation that came of age with the state. The protagonist is 72-year old Zvi Luria, a recently retired Israeli road engineer whose mind is beginning to falter. He forgets people’s names, repeatedly shops for groceries he has just bought and nearly takes the wrong child from the kindergarten while picking up his grandson. A doctor confirms that he is in the early stages of dementia and suggests that he take steps to keep his mind active.

Cover of "The Tunnel" by A.B. Yehoshua.At his physician wife Dina’s suggestion, Zvi offers himself as a volunteer consultant to Asael, the son of a former colleague, who now occupies Zvi’s old office in Israel’s Roads Authority bureaucracy. Asael accepts the offer, and brings Zvi into a hush-hush roadbuilding project.

The complication with this road, which passes through the vast Ramon Crater (Makhtesh Ramon) in the Negev desert, is that it must traverse a hill that has become a dwelling for an Arab family in Israel illegally, but, after a tragic set of occurrences, are unable to return to their native West Bank. It is decided to tunnel through the hill rather than level it and displace the family. The family’s circumstances evoke a different sort of crisis of memory and identity, as do the ancient Nabatean ruins in their surroundings.

But the book is at its best in its tender portrayal of Zvi’s daily life coping with his declining faculties. Yehoshua portrays Zvi and Dina’s relationship tenderly, and it is refreshing to see a portrait of a couple that is loving and sexually active in their later years. And when Dina becomes ill, we see how Zvi’s deep concern for her overrides her assertion that a doctor knows how to take care of herself.

Indeed, Zvi wishes to maintain a meaningful life. In fact, he seems to become more open to the world, becoming dependent on both Jews and Arabs when, for example, he cannot recall the name of his street. At one point he has his car ignition code tattooed on his arm (so his memory lapses won’t prevent him from starting his vehicle). Where numbers tattooed on an arm evoke terrible associations in Jewish memory, for Zvi they are a means of continuing to live and pressing against the inevitable erasure.

“The Memory Monster” by Yishai Sarid (176 pages, Restless Books)

“The Tunnel” by A.B. Yehoshua (336 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.