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Review: 'Friendly Fire' by A.B. Yehoshua is charmingly insightful — except for one big blind spot

The latest tale by leading Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua (A Woman in Jerusalem, The Liberated Bride) begins in Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion International Airport, with middle-aged elevator engineer Amotz Ya'ari hugging his wife, Daniela, before her departure for Africa.

Friendly Fire chronicles their very different experiences over the Hanukkah holiday. Amotz's often humorous escapades in Israel, while allowing a multifaceted portrait of the country to emerge, contrast markedly with Daniela's strained exchanges with her brother-in-law in Tanzania, which lend Friendly Fire dramatic weight but prove disturbing in their implications.

The purpose of Daniela's trip is to grieve; her sister died of a heart attack a year ago, and she hopes that time spent with her widowed brother-in-law will "prevent the pain of her loss from diminishing."

However, Daniela is shocked to find that the widower, Yirmi, remains traumatized by the earlier accidental death of his son. Worse, Yirmi has decided to forsake his identity — "the whole messy stew, Jewish and Israeli."

Daniela strives to connect with Yirmi, who has buried himself in his job as administrator of an archaeological dig in rural Tanzania, while thousands of miles away, Amotz grapples with the myriad quotidian duties of life in fast-paced Israel.

As a harried Amotz dashes around the country, valiantly trying to cope with his frail father's insistence on repairing a former lover's elevator, his son's confinement by the military for skipping reserve duty and the unexpectedly demanding task of babysitting his grandchildren, author Yehoshua deftly lays out the social and geographic landscape of contemporary Israel.

This includes winningly conveying the cultural particularities of cosmopolitan Tel Aviv and traditional Jerusalem through his characters' behavior. For example, on a Saturday afternoon in Jerusalem, "Ya'ari parks the car right in front of the Old Knesset, drawing on his own faith that an Orthodox mayor will not countenance violating the Sabbath by the writing of a parking ticket."

Meanwhile, Daniela and Yirmi's story features a noble emphasis on the unity of humankind — Yirmi's archaeological team aims to unearth evidence of the common primate ancestor of Homo sapiens — alongside more troubling themes.

Indeed, reading about Yirmi in Africa recalls Yehoshua's controversial view that only in Israel is it possible to be fully Jewish; although Yirmi makes a conscious decision to shed his Jewishness, perhaps moving to Africa renders such an eventuality more likely? While Yehoshua is too skilled a novelist to lapse into didacticism, he nonetheless steers Daniela toward the self-satisfying conclusion that Yirmi's permanent relocation there signifies spiritual death.

The major concern with Friendly Fire, however, is the author's treatment of the affair that gives the novel its title. Despite Yehoshua's longstanding and outspoken opposition to Israel's occupation of the Palestinian Territories, he loses sight of this larger picture when tackling Palestinian attitudes toward Israelis.

Yirmi's son was mistakenly killed by fellow Israeli soldiers during a mission in the occupied West Bank, where he had taken up position on the roof of a Palestinian family's house. He was fatally shot when he left his post unannounced and emerged elsewhere, intending to clean a bucket he had used as a toilet before returning it to the homeowners.

When Yirmi goes to the West Bank to try to find out why his son died, he cannot understand why this act of courtesy evokes no sympathy from the Palestinians he encounters, including the bitter pregnant woman whose roof his son had commandeered.

For her part, Daniela dismisses Yirmi's very attempt to understand this "young Palestinian woman filled with hatred and scorn." Palestinian hostility toward Israelis is portrayed as irrational, and the "suicidal" Palestinian woman becomes a caricature with which Daniela's life-affirming philosophy is contrasted.

The most disturbing aspect of this process involves linking the Palestinian woman — who expresses bigoted views, but no more — to terrorism. When Daniela grows despondent as a result of Yirmi's pessimism, she becomes afraid that she, like him, will be infected by "the despair of ideas that give hope only to a pregnant suicide bomber."

Such harsh sentiments undermine the otherwise powerful humanity — exemplified by Yirmi's archaeological mission — of this novel. Ultimately, Friendly Fire is as frustrating in its regurgitation of facile Israeli political convictions as it is arresting in its faith in the redemptive potential of humankind's common origin.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer in Beirut, Lebanon.

Friendly Fire

By A.B. Yehoshua, translated from Hebrew by Stuart Schoffman

Harcourt, 400 pages, $26

Review: 'Friendly Fire' by A.B. Yehoshua is charmingly insightful — except for one big blind spot 11/29/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 29, 2008 3:31am]
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