Winner of the Sapir Prize for Best Debut
Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
Bad news first. It’s just as well that I read Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s second novel, Waking Lions, last year. (It made my best of 2016 list.) Otherwise I might not have continued beyond chapter one of her debut, because of the crude talk. However, because of last year’s experience, I gave One Night, Markovitch 3 chapters, by the end of which there was no chance of me abandoning it. All my hopes for another complex and absorbing read were coming to fruition (and the crude talk had thankfully settled down).
Of course, I know that chapter one was establishing essential differences between the plain, inexperienced farmer, Yaakov Markovitch and handsome, virile, action man, Zeev Feinberg, the two men whose lives form the backbone of the novel. Theirs is a friendship formed when Markovitch saves Zeinberg’s life, not once but twice in the same night. Circumstances dictate, however, that they must both flee. Thus do they end up on a boat to Europe, where they are to mary Jewish women seeking to flee the Nazis. They are to divorce once their brides have obtained the necessary permission to stay in British Palestine. However, when Markovitch, whose face is so instantly forgettable, he makes an excellent arms smuggler, sets eyes on Bella, the most beautiful woman in the room, he falls irrevocably in love and determines to make her love him. Once back in Palestine, in his first ever act of assertiveness, he refuses to divorce her.
Is this a romantic gesture, or an act of cruelty? Or both? Certainly Markovitch’s life is never straightforward again. Neither, for that matter is Zeev Feinberg’s. Having divorced his European bride, he is free to marry the love of his life, Sonia. Yet their happiness isn’t a given. Much heartache and many separations follow, resulting in both men bringing up children not their own – sometimes knowingly, sometimes not. And then, just when life seems to be settling, there’s a tragedy, or a war, or the revealing of a deeply hidden secret. It seems that love and life are designed to test these characters to the max.
And in the testing Gundar-Goshen’s characters (and I include all, except the contemptible Bella) demonstrate not only their flaws, but such spirit, sensuality, generosity, weakness and vulnerability that I couldn’t help but love them. My heart broke with theirs. Not that I knew we were heading for heartache, as the narrative tone is frequently comic with fabulous (as in fable-like) events and sprinklings of magical realism. For instance, the lustrous moustache of Zeev Feinberg reflects the man’s vitality; Sonia always smells of oranges; her son Yair of peaches; houses freeze or heat up, according to the emotions experienced within. That tone led me to believe there would be, after all the trivialities, raising children, working to earn a living, eating a good meal or two, a mellow, contented, if not exactly happy, ending. But then, after all that effort, both personal and political, when the homeland had been gained (see footnote), out of the blue, the cruellest tragedy of all.
Crack. That’s the sound of my heart breaking all over again.
Footnote: The personal drama is, of course, an allegory for the political events of the day. Cf: Review at Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau
This post is part of the Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad.
It’s also a stop 3 of my Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press reading project. Next stop: Austria