“The Tunnel,” By A. B. Yehoshua (translated from the Hebrew by Stuart Schoffman)
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pages, $24 (in U.S.); Peter Halban Publishers, £13 (in U.K.)
A.B. Yehoshua’s fictions seldom collapse into the commonplace. They both honor the contract of realism and underwrite that contract with symbolic layers of meaning. His stories plausibly represent ordinary lives and at the same time astutely allegorize. Yehoshua’s latest novel, his 12th, confirms that no living Israeli writer accomplishes that dual feat with as casual a mastery.
“The Tunnel,” flawlessly translated from the Hebrew by Stuart Schoffman, tells a story about memory and mercy. It centers on a man fighting a losing but hardly hostile battle against dementia. Some of us wish to forget the past in order to avoid looking at the truth of ourselves. In this novel, by contrast, the forgetting seems to draw a man not further from, but toward himself.
As the novel opens, Zvi Luria, 72, recently retired after 40 years as an engineer at the Israel Roads Authority, exhibits the first, almost imperceptible signs of dementia. His neurologist issues two imperatives: Give rein to sexual passion with your wife, Dina, and keep working in your field of expertise.
Fulfilling the first instruction — or license — comes naturally enough. In contrast to the dysfunctional families that often populate Yehoshua’s fiction, here there is marital affection, lovingly sketched. (Yehoshua dedicates “The Tunnel” to his wife of 56 years, Rivka, a psychoanalyst who died while he was writing the novel.) Yet Luria wonders whether his condition may have resulted from having on one occasion suppressed his libido and declined to sleep with the wife of a colleague. The memory of that encounter oppresses him. He suspects that his illness has its own logic, which equates a man’s relationship to the women in his life with his relationship to his own soul.
In compliance with the second instruction, Dina, a practicing pediatrician, attaches her husband as an unpaid assistant to a young roads engineer named Asael.
- The Kafkaesque court battle over Kafka's literary remains
- For A.B. Yehoshua's new heroine, motherhood isn't a path to fruition
- 'Maybe I don't have any home': What this Palestinian author found after returning to her ancestral homeland
“My ability to think is living on borrowed time,” Zvi Luria cautions his new partner.
“You have a doctor on hand to look after you,” Asael replies.
“She’s only a pediatrician.”
“In the end,” Asael says, “you too will become a child.”
The signs are already there. At his grandson’s kindergarten, Luria picks up another child instead. Forgetting that he has already bought tomatoes, he buys a second load and has to make a copious amount of shakshuka to hide his blunder. At a performance in Tel Aviv of Charles Gounod’s opera “Romeo and Juliet,” he nearly wanders onstage mid-show. Afterwards, he makes light of his behavior. “I knew that Juliet was about to go onstage and make a fatal mistake,” he explains, “and I took pity on her, and tried to follow the singer and warn her.”
“Yehoshua’s characters,” the British writer John Bayley once said, “are born with an exasperating awareness of the wish for independence and the impossibility of being independent.” Forewarned of his fate, Luria slips into dependence. He begins to forget first names, his home address (remembering only that his street bears a rabbi’s name), and his car’s activation code (he has the digits tattooed on his arm). His grammar loses the past tense, and the sinews of his speech slacken. Much to his exasperation, his driver’s license is revoked after a confused brush with traffic police. Dina suggests that her husband wanted the license to be suspended, “which is why you handed the police your dementia without them asking, and soon you’ll turn the dementia into your identity card.”
Luria and Asael are tasked with planning a secret road for military use in the Ramon Crater in the Negev desert. As in his novella “Early in the Summer of 1970” (1972) and his novel “The Lover” (1977), here Yehoshua associates the desert with madness; the barren wilderness and its indistinct terrain become a kind of no-man’s land where memories evaporate.
It turns out the proposed tunnel — meant to go under a hill that could otherwise be leveled without too much trouble — carries humanitarian purpose. A Palestinian father and his two grown children have taken refuge atop the hill in an abandoned Nabatean ruin, remnant of a vanished culture. They had fled from their home in the Jenin area of the West Bank in the wake of a desperate and botched sale of land intended to fund the mother’s heart transplant in Israel. Hounded out of town for having “collaborated” with the Jews, they are now living in limbo as what Luria calls shabazim (shohim bli zehut) or “residents without identity.” Luria cannot help but compare their lack of identity with the dwindling of his own.
As the two engineers plan a tunnel to avoid displacing the family a second time, Asael twice mentions an outlandish theory attributed to Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the historian and second president of Israel, that many Arabs in Israel are descendants of Jews who converted to Islam but remained loyal to the land. In Asael’s paraphrase: “All those around us are merely Jews whose identity has been forgotten.”
The tunnel, then, is not only topography, nor only allegory for Luria’s progressive descent into interior darkness, but also a representation of hidden connections between identities.
It’s not the first time Luria’s career has entangled him with questions of identity. Several years before retiring, he’d been asked by the Ministry of Defense to plan a road for a Jewish settlement in the northern West Bank.
But then it turned out that this old road ran over an ancient graveyard, possibly from the First Temple period, and rather than fight with the ultra-Orthodox burial authorities over every bone, it was decided to shelve the plan, and instead build a stone wall alongside the Arab homes nearest the access road, thereby hiding the Palestinians from the Jews, and the Jews from the Palestinians, so that each side could indulge its own identity without fearing the gaze of the other.
Since retiring, Luria has discovered that Jews and Palestinians meet most intimately not on the roads but in hospitals. Throughout this novel, they transmit diseases to each other and donate organs to one another and as patients or as doctors learn to regard one another with a kind of mute mercy.
Luria’s battle is lost from the start; his end is as foretold as Juliet’s. Mercifully, Yehoshua does not accompany Luria until the inescapable, narrowing darkness. Instead, the author endows his protagonist with newfound freedoms. In apprehending the world as ephemeral and transitory, Luria greets the onset of oblivion not with panic but with composure and high humor.
In a country obsessed with what A.B. Yehoshua has elsewhere called “a mania of remembering,” forgetting opens a space for Luria to shake off both his own repressed past and — what is more elemental — the onus of Israeli society’s repeated admonishments to remember. The novel’s resplendent last scene suggests that if memory is sometimes a form of tyranny, Luria — despite his wounded dignity and his intimations of mortality — is unfettered and free.
Benjamin Balint, a writing living in Jerusalem, is the author of Kafka’s Last Trial, winner of the 2020 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.