“One Night, Markovitch,” by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. Pushkin Press, 384 pp., $15 (paperback)
Penning a novel in the 21st century about Israel’s early history is perhaps a surprising undertaking for a budding author; the period of the state’s establishment is steeped in contradictions that are further complicated by a modern-day perspective. But Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s debut novel, “One Night, Markovitch,” broaches the subject with imagination and wit. Set largely in pre-state Israel on the eve of World War II, it has drama, sex, betrayal and humor – everything necessary to captivate a contemporary audience.
Most of all, “One Night, Markovitch” is a dizzying assault on the senses. The world it describes, a Promised Land redolent of overripe fruit and lust, is sickly sweet, inhabited by characters that veer maniacally between excess and denial, and stumble drunkenly from hope to despair. The novel is both intimate and epic in its proportions. Spanning two generations, it centers on the fortunes of two very different Jewish men: the gallant and moustachioed Zeev Feinberg, and his friend, the uncharismatic Yaacov Markovitch.
The fact that its author – recipient of the prestigious Sapir Prize for debut fiction – is also an experienced screenwriter is no surprise: In Sondra Silverston’s masterful English translation, the vivid descriptions of landscape and irresistibly amusing dialogue are pure cinema (rumors suggest a film adaptation is imminent).
Our story begins, slapstick style, in an unnamed village in northern Palestine: Feinberg has been sleeping with the wife of Avraham Mandelbaum, the local butcher, and been found out. If he doesn’t leave the village, his balls are likely to be chopped off; he persuades his best friend, Markovitch, to flee with him to Tel Aviv and seek the help of Feinberg’s old acquaintance, Froike, the deputy commander of the Irgun (pre-state underground militia).
Froike, a formidable man who would “swallow a grenade and eject it from his anus if it would help save the country,” concocts a solution that later proves to be calamitous for everyone involved. As part of a Zionist mission, Feinberg and Markovitch will sail to Europe with a group of young men; there they will be arbitrarily matched and wed to Jewish women they have never met. The grooms will then bring their brides back to Palestine, thus achieving two goals at once: saving young Jewish women from the Nazis, and increasing the Jewish population in the Holy Land. Back home the fictitious marriages will be annulled and all will supposedly be well.
In a cruel twist of fate, the unremarkable Markovitch, forever overlooked and ignored by women, is paired with the most beautiful of the would-be brides, Bella Zeigerman.
Flabbergasted by the fortuitous match, Markovitch realizes this might be his one shot at true happiness. He makes a tragic calculation, assuming that if he refuses to grant Bella a divorce, this exquisite creature, utterly indifferent to her fake groom, will over time fall in love with him.
Upon their return to Palestine, all the new marriages are dissolved, except for that of Markovitch, who callously denies Bella her annulment. Meanwhile, Feinberg, who has gladly divorced his hairy wife, marries his true love – the passionate and volatile Sonya. All four return to the village, with Bella, now a caged bird, livid in captivity and Markovitch stubborn in his resolve to conquer her heart.
What follows is an entertaining and moving account of the vicissitudes of life and love that befall the two couples. Bella becomes a zealous advocate for the Hebrew translation of German poetry, while Sonya relocates to Tel Aviv to become a hotshot member of the Irgun. Even the plain and lonely Markovitch, despised by everyone in the village for his treatment of Bella, does something extraordinary and helps deliver a neighbor’s baby beneath a carob tree.
While Gundar-Goshen recounts the couples’ stories, she also injects some uproarious insults into the mix: At one point, while her future husband is still at sea, Sonya is standing on the beach, watching the crabs, and yells out to an imaginary Feinberg:
"I hope that one of these grabs your penis in its claws ... When I get through with you, you’ll walk on your side, like them, for the rest of your life.”
As well as its colorful concoction of pathos and humor, “One Night, Markovitch” has a distinctly mythic quality – reminiscent of magical realist novels such as Meir Shalev’s “The Blue Mountain” (1988) and “Four Meals” (1994) – where characters possess curious or superhuman qualities: Feinberg’s wife, Sonya, has a genetic condition that leaves her smelling of oranges, while their son, Yair, gives off a constant scent of peaches. In Sonya’s case, this fragrance is considered seductive, luring men to their downfall like a siren’s song. For the adolescent Yair, however, this condition is a curse, preventing him from fulfilling his dream of becoming a soldier, because it would mean always alerting the enemy to his whereabouts. Feinberg, who is secretly ashamed of his son’s affliction, does his best to mask the scent by repeatedly scrubbing him in water. However, his prejudice toward Yair proves to be not simply a matter of gender inequality, but of life and death, and he pays dearly for it.
Unlike “The Blue Mountain,” which overtly takes Zionism to task by undermining the mythology of the Second Aliyah, Gundar-Goshen’s novel is trickier to categorize. It is neither a cynical appraisal of Israel’s birth, nor is it tinged with nostalgia. It is, in some ways, very old-fashioned – men regale their friends with amusing tales of sexual exploits and women are so beautiful that sea captains are thrown off course and sail in the wrong direction. But all this is interwoven with a thoroughly modern sensibility that often punctures any romanticism. For instance, we learn that Bella chose to immigrate to Palestine because of a lyrical poem she once read, comparing the sun to an orange. When she eventually reaches her destination, she seeks out the poet, only to discover that he reeks of chicken liver and that she doesn’t even like oranges.
Old Jews of the Diaspora and the New Israeli Sabra
The most damning deflation relates to Markovitch’s desperate attempt to make Bella fall in love with him. At the start of the novel, when Feinberg scorns his friend for his pigheadedness, Markovitch compares his plight to that of the Jews:
“Look at us, look at this country. Two thousand years we’ve been hoping for her, waiting for her, sleeping at night with our arms around the sleeves of her nightdress ... And you think she wants us ... Nonsense! She vomits us up time and time again, sends us to hell ... You hold on to her as hard as you can and you hope...”
Without giving too much of the plot away, “One Night, Markovitch” hypnotizes the reader with the possibility that if you truly desire something for long enough, it will be yours. Yet because it is premised on unrequited love, the novel also equates Zionism with a mad ardor and selfishness.
Much of Modern Hebrew literature over the past 60 years has posited an unresolved relationship between the Old Jew of the European Diaspora and the New Israeli Sabra – take, for example, Moshe Shamir’s “He Walked Through the Fields” (1948), David Grossman’s “See Under: Love” (1989) and Yehoshua Kenaz’s “The Way to the Cats” (1991) – yet it has nearly always remained on dry land. The vast body of water that separates Israel from Europe rarely features in these works, and so “One Night, Markovitch,” which revolves around four major sea voyages between Palestine and Germany, during and after World War II, is an oddity in this respect.
Each 11-day voyage is described in detail; far away from the shore and the politics of the two countries, attention is given to the rocking of the boat, the seasickness, the promenades on deck and the expectations of the characters as they approach their destinations.
The water that surrounds the boat is always “calm” and “opaque,” resolutely refusing to reflect the emotions of the protagonists. It is simply cold, wet water, and nothing more; the fact that, by contrast, land is hardly ever just land in Modern Hebrew literature – metaphor, simile, symbol, yes, but not just land – reinforces the strangeness of the water.
In contrast to the evocative and fleshed-out descriptions of Palestine, Germany, as described by Gundar-Goshen, is a surreal labyrinth of cobblestones and dark alleyways, devoid of place names and geographical markers. When Markovitch and Feinberg disembark after their first journey to find their wives, it is as though they have entered a dream. All that is mentioned is a nondescript café and a waitress; the two men could be anywhere. The clue to their sinister bearings comes when Markovitch innocuously drops a “mountain of porcelain saucers and coffee and cake” and muses that the crashing sound is a bit less noisy than Kristallnacht.
Although Feinberg’s much later second voyage to Germany, during which he goes in pursuit of Nazi criminals, includes more concrete references to Nazi crimes – such as German abuse of Jewish children – the horrors of the Holocaust are, for the most part, barely mentioned. More importantly, facing these horrors, or coming to terms with them, is never an end in itself: Feinberg may have been sent to Europe on a mission to save Jewish girls, and then later to hunt down war criminals, but he only ever agrees because he is running away from something back home. The heroism involved in these operations is forever pierced by pragmatism.
The fake marriages that form the backbone to “One Night, Markovitch” are based on historical fact and this alone is of interest. But the “what ifs” proffered in the novel – what if a plain and lonely man joined a Zionist mission to rescue European women? What if he was randomly matched with the most desirable one? What if he refused to let her go? – keep the reader hooked until the end.
Giulia Miller is a freelance reviewer. She is the author of “Reconfiguring Surrealism in Modern Hebrew Literature: Menashe Levin, Yitzhak Oren and Yitzhak Orpaz” (Vallentine Mitchell, 2013).