The Extra: A Novel
The Extra A.B. Yehoshua. Translated by Stuart Schoffman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 240 pp. $24)
Translator Stuart Schoffman has captured the long, often poetic, third-person descriptions and the lively, sometimes blunt dialogue in A.B. Yehoshua’s latest novel, The Extra. This unusual, unpredictable story is about a 42-year-old woman who seems to wander through life. Noga (her name in Hebrew means Venus), a harpist with an orchestra in The Netherlands, is coming back for three months to her family’s old rent-controlled apartment in Jerusalem. She will apartment-sit while Ima, her mother, widowed nine months earlier, tries out an assisted-living facility in Tel Aviv near Honi, Noga’s younger brother, and his family.
Ima’s move would make it easier for Honi to watch over her—and besides, Honi dislikes the haredimwho are moving into Ima’s neighborhood. In fact, two young children of an ultra-Orthodox family, one a beautiful autistic child, continually sneak into Ima’s apartment to watch television. Their audaciousness angers Noga, but she’s also sorry for the children, whose break-ins were tolerated by Ima.
Noga has mixed feelings as well about where her mother should live, and about her ex-husband, Uriah, who left her nine years earlier when she refused to have children, but who still loves her. Honi, who works in film and television production and is concerned about Noga getting bored, gets her occasional work as an extra. When she appears in Carmen, at the foot of Masada, Uriah—who is remarried and has a family—turns up unexpectedly to see her. They continue their old argument about her refusal to have a child.
The narrative moves along episodically, recollections and present-day scenes seemingly as unanticipated as they are inconclusive. Noga is eager to return to Europe, even though her sometime lover there, a fellow musician, did not do as she asked: prevent anyone else from playing the Mozart Concerto for Flute and Harp. A pretty woman, Noga attracts others but is not herself attracted to them in a way that would have her change her behavior for them.
Indeed, Noga seems to be the extra. Wandering down a darkening corridor on a hospital set where she is playing a patient in a wheelchair, she sees the huge warehouse as “a metaphor for humanity, and we are all extras in its story, not knowing if a credible and satisfying resolution awaits us at the end. If only, she sighs, it were set to the right music.”
But what is the “it”? The image strains, and the meaning is not clear since Noga’s character does not grow, even at the end when a startling fact of biology surprises her while on tour in Japan.
Noga is a richly conceived character, but Yehoshua cannot resist interrupting the narrative with little disquisitions on the structure of harps, Claude Debussy’s La Mer, Martin Buber, Japanese religion and culture, to name a few. Still, if the narrative center does not hold, these little “extras” are impressive and informative.