A Tragicomic Tale of Marital Love and Cognitive Decline
By A.B. Yehoshua
Translated by Stuart Schoffman
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
A.B. Yehoshua, still productive at 83, is probably the most impish writer among his generation of great Israeli novelists, a list that includes Amos Oz, David Grossman and Meir Shalev. While Yehoshua, like his contemporaries, takes both literature and life in Israel seriously, he will often regale his readers with outrageous asides.
His most recent novel, The Tunnel, with Stuart Schoffman’s able and innovative translation, is a tragicomic case study of marital love and cognitive decline as 70-something Zvi Luria, a retired chief engineer at the Israel Roads Authority recently diagnosed with dementia, is called on to do one last job.
Yet the other characters of the book, and there are many, come so frenetically to the front of the narrative that one has the feeling of observing a dizzying French farce. (Yehoshua has both been a playwright and lived and taught in Paris.) Indeed, The Tunnel is his most cinematic novel, worthy of a Netflix series, the action set against the vast Ramon Crater in southern Israel’s Negev Desert, a large stage for the unfolding of a theatrical plot.
The Jewish-cultural allusions suggested by this novel abound. On the Jewish side, there are plays on familiar names: Roads Authority engineer Asael Maimoni’s first name is that of a minor biblical character and his last name is taken from famed Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides; Zvi Luria’s last name is a reference to the 16th-century kabbalist Isaac Luria.
The plot of the novel itself touches on property issues in the Land of Israel as well as the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis. A family of Palestinian squatters—father, son and daughter—have found a refuge on an ancient hill in the Ramon Crater. Their convoluted backstory is woven deftly into the central plot: In order to afford a heart transplant for his dying wife, the Palestinian father attempts to sell a parcel of Palestinian land to a group of West Bank Israeli settlers. The sale—based on financial chicanery and his wife having died in the interim—falls through, and the man, fearful of being branded a traitor to the Palestinian cause, flees his hometown in the West Bank with his remaining family.
Asael has been instructed to build a secret Israel Defense Forces road through the crater, on land that intersects the hill in question, but, in a humanitarian gesture, without destroying the Palestinians’ hideout. He asks Zvi, who is an expert in tunnel design, to help him construct a tunnel to avoid displacing the family.
Zvi’s wife, Dina, a prominent pediatric physician, urges her husband to accept Asael’s offer, feeling her husband would benefit from an intellectual challenge. When Dina herself becomes sick and is forced to retire from her position as a hospital administrator, Zvi begins to spiral, constructing a farcical plot to get his wife to “earn” her retirement and research benefits by designing a fictional research project. In the way of farces, this project turns out to be of benefit to the medical profession and to sick Israeli—and Palestinian—children.
Zvi, an unofficial consultant for Asael, knows where the road he is building begins but he is not told where it is supposed to end. As Zvi goes south, so does the novel, which ends oddly with—spoiler alert!—the shooting death of a deer (in Hebrew, zvi), one of the endangered fauna that Zvi, in a previous tunnel project, has sought to protect. This revelation may give readers a pause at this act of reviewer-committed treason. But, as the book perhaps posits, it is sometimes best to start thinking early, as the curtain comes down, about the role of an ending in life, literature or any true work of art.
Joseph Lowin, longtime writer of the About Hebrew column for Hadassah Magazine, is the author of Art and the Artist in the Contemporary Israeli Novel.