From the cover of "Stockholm" by Noa Yedlin
From the cover of "Stockholm" by Noa Yedlin

Friends hope for benefits by concealing a death in Israeli novelist’s dark comedy

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

Because the vast majority of contemporary Hebrew novels go untranslated, it is something of an event for Israeli writers when their work is published in English. It offers the opportunity to be discovered and appreciated beyond the relatively small universe of Hebrew readers. So I write about Noa Yedlin’s “Stockholm” with sympathy for its author, imagining the difficulty of releasing a novel — and particularly a funny one — in the midst of the terrible moment ushered in on Oct. 7. The appetite to read a dark comedy is lessened when one is in darkness.

Yedlin is a major novelist in Israel and a previous recipient of the Sapir Prize, Israel’s most prestigious literary award. Although it is the first of her works to be translated into English (and it is done so ably by the masterful Jessica Cohen), “Stockholm” is not a new book. It was originally published in Israel in 2016 and was the basis for a popular Israeli television series, adapted by Yedlin herself.

The novel revolves around 69-year-old Tel Aviv University professor Avishay Sar-Shalom, who is seen as a chief contender for the forthcoming Nobel Prize in Economics. The problem, as we learn in the opening pages, is that Avishay has died, of apparently natural causes, eight days before the prize recipients are to be announced.

It is his close friend and occasional bedmate Zohara who finds Avishay lifeless in his bachelor apartment. She alerts the other three members of their small circle of longtime friends, who convene and come to a decision: They will conceal Avishay’s condition until the winner is made public, since the rules state that the laureate must be alive at the time of the announcement.

A sort of comedy of errors ensues, as the group assumes the task of hiding Avishay’​​s death from everyone else in his life — a task made more difficult by perturbing messages arriving on Avishay’s phone. The web of lies Avishay’s friends inexpertly weave becomes increasingly flimsy, and their efforts to deal with his actual body are memorably inept (and not for the squeamish).

Noa Yedlin (Photo/Courtesy)
Noa Yedlin (Photo/Courtesy)

However, the essence of the book lies not in its comedy, but in its excavation of its characters’ inner lives. The narration cycles through the perspectives of each of the four friends who are in on the conspiracy. And the reader learns quickly that their impulse to keep Avishay in suspended animation is not as simple or pure as the initially stated desire to see their friend receive the greatest honor in his field. Rather, there are other motivations for participating in this subterfuge.

Yehuda, Avishay’s best friend since childhood, has achieved great wealth as a consequence of inventing a widely used bag opener. He is soon to publish an autobiographical book that, while not particularly good, will include a foreword reluctantly penned by Avishay, and Yehuda is cognizant of the gravitas the Nobel Prize will bring to this endorsement.

Zohara eyes the purse that comes with the Nobel Prize as a possible inheritance for herself as Avishay’s common-law wife. However, that status is limited to her own perception, as nobody else thinks of Avishay and Zohara as an item, let alone a functionally married couple. And as Zohara goes so far as to reconfigure Avishay’s apartment to reflect the fiction of her residing there, it appears that she has a difficult time convincing even herself.

Amos, a fellow economist, agrees to the conspiracy begrudgingly, partly out of fear that opposing it will bring to light his jealousy. He has long resented Avishay’s celebrity, and he also dreams of winning the Nobel Prize himself.

And then there’s Nili, who has never truly felt included in this inner circle of friends. She senses that she still needs “to pass a test whose nature she could only guess at” and hopes that her usefulness in dealing with a corpse — she’s a retired doctor — will bring a feeling of acceptance and belonging that has long evaded her.

The competing agendas, reemerging decades-old resentments, and sheer difficulty of maintaining the complicated ruse all take a toll on the relationships. Fittingly, the theory that had made Avishay famous was the​ “Class King” mod­el of changes in the distribution of power within groups, and his friends seem to be enacting a test case.

The story could easily be translated to another cultural setting, but the characters are quintessentially Israeli, and there is no shortage of pokes at them, as well as some barbed recognition of the group’s privileged status within Israeli society. For example, as the friends consider the possibility that they will be accused of having killed Avishay, Nili notes, “I know it’s not PC, so it’s a good thing nobody can hear us, but yes, we are a group of white professionals, and if we say that our friend died of a heart attack, then he died of a heart attack.”

But Yedlin is also a sympathetic observer. It becomes clear that often underlying the characters’ selfish streaks and foibles are insecurity, unfulfillment and the fear of what growing old promises — the demise of their bodies and the inching toward death.

Indeed, by keeping Avishay alive, they can postpone the act of mourning their good friend. And their collective act of denial is surely also about their own mortality, which has suddenly become more concrete. It is to Yedlin’s great credit that she manages to approach it all in a manner that is simultaneously humorous and deadly serious.

“Stockholm” by Noa Yedlin (HarperVia, 384 pages)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

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