Israel's Most Jewish Writer.Second Person Singular
Translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg
2012, $25.00, pp. 352
There's so much going on at so many levels in Sayed Kashua's delicious new novel Second Person Singular that it's impossible to squeeze the tome into any one category. At times it reads, in Mitch Ginsburg's skillful translation, like a novel of manners The novel of manners is a sub-genre of the realist novel which deals with aspects of behaviour, language, customs and values characteristic of a particular class of people in a specific historical context. or a domestic drama; at others like a mystery story, even a psychological thriller. And the plot is so cleverly contrived that the book quickly blossoms into a page-turner. It tells of two very different Arab Israelis living in Jerusalem. Both are "immigrants" from the boondocks, in this case from the heavily Arab-populated borderland bor·der·land
a. Land located on or near a frontier.
b. The fringe: a shadowy figure who lived on the borderland of the drug scene.
2. of central Israel known as "the Triangle." They're also both graduates of the Hebrew University, professionals (albeit in different fields and on different levels), and determined to flee the provinciality pro·vin·ci·al·i·ty
n. pl. pro·vin·ci·al·i·ties
1. See provincialism.
2. Ecology The restriction of the range of a plant or animal population to a province or group of provinces. of their boyhood. But in every other way, they could hardly be less alike. What's more, they're wholly unacquainted with each other until a haphazard, almost bizarre crossing of their paths leads to a bout of self-inflicted havoc in the life of one and to relief for the burdened soul of the other.
The underlying theme of the novel, however, is identity, encountered in various forms: overt and covert, entrenched and fluid, elusive, compounded, and stolen. Kashua constructs this leitmotif leit·mo·tif also leit·mo·tiv
1. A melodic passage or phrase, especially in Wagnerian opera, associated with a specific character, situation, or element.
2. A dominant and recurring theme, as in a novel. deftly, almost slyly, letting its full heft creep up on us slowly. Take, for example, as basic an element of identity as one's name. The first of the book's two main characters, whose tale is related by an omniscient om·nis·cient
Having total knowledge; knowing everything: an omniscient deity; the omniscient narrator.
1. One having total knowledge.
2. Omniscient God. narrator NARRATOR. A pleader who draws narrs serviens narrator, a sergeant at law. Fleta, 1. 2, c. 37. Obsolete. , is identified throughout only as "the lawyer." We learn intimate details of his life and are taken on an extensive tour of his psyche, yet we never so much as learn his name. The second protagonist, a social worker and effectively the lawyer's foil, narrates his story to us. But we don't learn his name until almost the end of the book, by which point he has effectively discarded it.
The lawyer, a yuppie, 30-something father of two when we meet him, has grown so successful defending East Jerusalem and West Bank Palestinians in criminal cases that he's moved his office to downtown West Jerusalem, the Jewish side of town. He drives a Mercedes-Benz, sends his daughter to a bilingual Jewish-Arab school, and brings home fine wine and sushi for his dinner guests, who, like his wife, are fellow Arab Israelis, accomplished professionals and "immigrants" from the countryside. The lawyer also takes care to uphold an image of sophistication so·phis·ti·cate
v. so·phis·ti·cat·ed, so·phis·ti·cat·ing, so·phis·ti·cates
1. To cause to become less natural, especially to make less naive and more worldly.
2. by periodically visiting a used-book shop to acquire works of contemporary Hebrew fiction and even a smattering of the classics. It is tucked into a copy of Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata, purchased there, that he happens upon a note penned in Arabic, about a missed meeting, in what he recognizes as his wife's handwriting. Instantly concluding that it referred to an assignation ASSIGNATION, Scotch law. The ceding or yielding a thing to another of which intimation must be made. with the book's previous owner, identified on its first page only as Yonatan, he dissolves into a jealous rage and resolves not to rest until he confronts his wife's Jewish lover.
In alternating chapters, we follow the saga of the second main character from the time, several years earlier, when he completed his studies in social work. Although he had promised his widowed mother to return home upon graduation, he tries to make a go of it in Jerusalem. Shy, naive and inexperienced with women, he's teased and put upon by his Arab colleagues in the East Jerusalem branch of the Social Services Bureau. So after starting to moonlight as a caregiver to an Ashkenazi Jew his own age who has been reduced to a vegetative state by an accident, he impulsively quits his day job and gradually immerses himself in the remains of the invalid's former life. Reading the young man's books, listening to his CDs and learning to work his vintage, top-of-the-line camera, he gradually undergoes such a sea change that Jews readily take him for one of their own--and he does nothing to disabuse dis·a·buse
tr.v. dis·a·bused, dis·a·bus·ing, dis·a·bus·es
To free from a falsehood or misconception: I must disabuse you of your feelings of grandeur. them of that illusion. But crossing the psychological divide in an ethnically segregated society is another matter entirely. Seated in a West Jerusalem pub, watching the Jewish patrons around him insouciantly drinking, talking and dancing, the refrain that reverberates in his mind is: "I want to be like them."
Sayed Kashua, himself an Arab Israeli who writes in Hebrew, is among the brightest stars in the firmament of contemporary Israeli writers. Besides penning two earlier novels (Dancing Arabs and Let It Be Morning), he is celebrated locally as a satirist for his weekly column in Haaretz and the scripts of the popular TV sitcom Arab Labor, which portrays an Arab Israeli living and working among Jews and roasts absolutely everyone in sight.
I cannot say what native Jewish Israelis take away from this book about the aspirations and anxieties of a portion of their Arab countrymen. But to one who grew up as a member of a minority group in one country and became an immigrant in another, Kashua's portrayals of the universal and the particular, in characters who find themselves straddling cultures, feel right on the mark.
What also makes Second Person Singular particularly appealing is that it eschews the grinding preoccupation with the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio im·bro·glio
n. pl. im·bro·glios
a. A difficult or intricate situation; an entanglement.
b. A confused or complicated disagreement.
2. A confused heap; a tangle. to focus, with empathy and irony, on the frustrations and foibles of people intent on making good lives for themselves despite the ongoing turmoil. Adding to its richness are the often wry insights gained in that process. Back when he was a university student, for example, the lawyer was often stopped by police in East Jerusalem and ordered to produce his identity card. Since moving his office to West Jerusalem, however, that has never happened. Ultimately he realizes that whether or not one is stopped for looking suspicious has nothing to do with one's visage or accent but simply with the fact that the Israeli police and security guards, who usually come from the lower classes of society, "will never stop anyone dressed in clothes that seem more expensive than their own."
Ina Friedman is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem.