Earlier this year, the great Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua died at the age of eighty-five. Robert Alter—who, like the author’s other friends, knew him as “Buli”—offers a personal and literary perspective on Yehoshua’s work:
There is a prevailing notion in the Hebrew criticism of Yehoshua’s novels that they are all about Jewish history, Zionism, and the future of the nation. To this end, critics have dutifully unearthed national and historical motifs, freighted allusions to the Bible, and interrogations of the Zionist project. Some Hebrew critics have come close to turning his stories and novels into national allegories. None of this is altogether off the mark. What such readings miss, however, is the charm of his novels. They also forgo any explanation of how his work has kindled enthusiasm among Americans, Europeans, and others who could scarcely be expected to be much interested in Zionism, the Jewish people, and Jewish history. It’s worth remembering that Buli was also a comic novelist. Granted, the comedy of his fiction is offbeat, deadpan, and often concerned with the grimmest realities of life, from obsession to dementia. Still, reading Buli’s wry descriptions and bizarre scenarios, one often cannot help but smile.
The subject that powerfully engages Yehoshua as a writer is how a perfectly ordinary person can find himself edging by degrees into behaviors that are altogether unreasonable, on occasion grotesque, and, often, bizarrely comic.
Elsewhere, the comedy is in Yehoshua’s droll descriptions. His last novel, The Tunnel, vividly illustrates this. Though about the decline into senility of a character named Zvi Luria (yet another engineer), written when Buli himself was aging, it abounds in amusing formulations. Thus, Herod is referred to as “the admirable King Herod, who ruled our nation for almost 40 years, and was like the Office for Public Works and Israeli Roads rolled into one.”
Buli, needless to say, was urgently concerned with sounding the depths of his people’s bewildering and often murky history and trying to make out how Zionism might provide a viable response to the challenging ambiguities of the Jewish condition. . . . As a novelist, however, he often used the vehicle of fiction to indulge playfully in whimsical ideas and situations rather than polemics. His work reminds us that fiction can be entertaining, and perhaps should be, even when it is serious.