In His Latest Novel, A.B. Yehoshua Toys with His Favorite Themes: Unrequited Lust and Palestinians

January 28, 2021 | Robert Alter
About the author:

Now an octogenarian, A.B. Yehoshua can firmly lay claim to the status of Israel’s foremost serious novelist. His latest literary contribution, The Tunnel, appeared in English translation last summer. By following an aging engineer named Zvi Luria as he faces the rapid erosion of his cognitive faculties, the work demonstrates that Yehoshua hasn’t lost his own, as Robert Alter writes in his review:

The Tunnel . . . is something of a hodgepodge. Its different pieces may not fit together as tightly as one would like, but each piece has its own fascination. In any case, the main achievement of the book is to draw us into the process of mental deterioration through aging and the gnawing anxieties about decline triggered by that process, a subject rarely tackled by novelists. This may sound dire, but Yehoshua’s distinctive gift as a novelist is demonstrated yet again in his ability to turn it into an occasion for absurd comedy as well as for fear.

Amid this “hodgepodge” are what Alter identifies as familiar themes from the author’s oeuvre:

Sexual desire, which ranges from happy marital consummation to free-floating lust, plays an important role in Luria’s story. It is an impulse we conventionally associate with youth, but this septuagenarian has it in abundance, if ambivalently. [The] alluring naked woman transmogrified [through simile] into a mummy angrily confronts him years after the encounter and tells him, “you lusted after me.” When he responds that if it was lust, he “blocked” it, she asks, “Who asked you to block it?” The phenomenon of blocked lust is a familiar theme in Yehoshua, and it is especially important here in Luria’s relation to the beautiful daughter of the Palestinian family on the Negev hilltop.

The Tunnel of the title is meant to go through the hilltop, and thereby save this family from displacement. Yet even as Yehoshua takes up the worn-out theme of the Zionist guilty conscience he seems to toy with the possibility of an almost organic Jewish-Arab reconciliation. A light, perhaps, at the end of the tunnel.

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