Israel's Most Jewish Writer

Article excerpt

Second Person Singular

Sayed Kashua

Translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg

Grove Press

2012, $25.00, pp. 352

There's so much going on at so many levels in Sayed Kashua's delicious new novel Second Person Singular that it's impossible to squeeze the tome into any one category. At times it reads, in Mitch Ginsburg's skillful translation, like a novel of manners or a domestic drama; at others like a mystery story, even a psychological thriller. And the plot is so cleverly contrived that the book quickly blossoms into a page-turner. It tells of two very different Arab Israelis living in Jerusalem. Both are "immigrants" from the boondocks, in this case from the heavily Arab-populated borderland of central Israel known as "the Triangle." They're also both graduates of the Hebrew University, professionals (albeit in different fields and on different levels), and determined to flee the provinciality of their boyhood. But in every other way, they could hardly be less alike. What's more, they're wholly unacquainted with each other until a haphazard, almost bizarre crossing of their paths leads to a bout of self-inflicted havoc in the life of one and to relief for the burdened soul of the other.

The underlying theme of the novel, however, is identity, encountered in various forms: overt and covert, entrenched and fluid, elusive, compounded, and stolen. Kashua constructs this leitmotif deftly, almost slyly, letting its full heft creep up on us slowly. Take, for example, as basic an element of identity as one's name. The first of the book's two main characters, whose tale is related by an omniscient narrator, is identified throughout only as "the lawyer." We learn intimate details of his life and are taken on an extensive tour of his psyche, yet we never so much as learn his name. The second protagonist, a social worker and effectively the lawyer's foil, narrates his story to us. But we don't learn his name until almost the end of the book, by which point he has effectively discarded it.

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The lawyer, a yuppie, 30-something father of two when we meet him, has grown so successful defending East Jerusalem and West Bank Palestinians in criminal cases that he's moved his office to downtown West Jerusalem, the Jewish side of town. He drives a Mercedes-Benz, sends his daughter to a bilingual Jewish-Arab school, and brings home fine wine and sushi for his dinner guests, who, like his wife, are fellow Arab Israelis, accomplished professionals and "immigrants" from the countryside. The lawyer also takes care to uphold an image of sophistication by periodically visiting a used-book shop to acquire works of contemporary Hebrew fiction and even a smattering of the classics. It is tucked into a copy of Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata, purchased there, that he happens upon a note penned in Arabic, about a missed meeting, in what he recognizes as his wife's handwriting. Instantly concluding that it referred to an assignation with the book's previous owner, identified on its first page only as Yonatan, he dissolves into a jealous rage and resolves not to rest until he confronts his wife's Jewish lover. …