It’s hard to find your footing in Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s debut novel, One Night, Markovitch (Pushkin Press). There are no dates, no names of places. The language is whimsical and fable-like, grandiose and abstract. There is talk of loneliness, hope, expectation, the idea of nationhood and language; how it is possible to die of love, although it’s quite different to live from it; of villagers being grateful and condemning at the same time. Of killing Arabs and showing the British. And there is a whole lot of birthing.
But slowly, you find your way. The place is a village in Palestine. The time span is large and bloody: from the first waves of Jewish immigrants arriving in the Holy Land during the escalation leading up to WWII, through to the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, and beyond. The unlikely hero: a “gloriously average,” utterly forgettable man—Yaacov Markovitch. The sidekick: a moustachioed philanderer and raconteur, Zeev Feinberg. The bromance between Markovitch and Feinberg is the heart of the book, but its arteries and veins are the women—Rachel Mandelbaum, the slaughterer’s wife, with her perfect breasts, who longs for an Austrian soldier; Sonya Feinberg, who smells of oranges and burns bread; the most beautiful Bella Markovitch, who is trapped in marriage and distrustful of poetry, but is nevertheless the author’s metaphor for the mess that is Palestine and Israel.
Gundar-Goshen is a journalist and psychologist who writes in Hebrew. It’s impossible to say what the effect of her language is in the original, but in the English translation by Sondra Silverston, the result is rich, mythological, sweeping. One could argue that if you were going to try and write a story about the birth of Israel then this would be the only way to do it. Because to loose yourself in specifics, in the geography and history of the most conflicted patch of land on the planet, would mean to loose any hope of beauty. And there is much beauty here—in the madness of birds as evening approaches, in the carob trees, and a man who sleeps with his absent wife’s nightdress in his arms.
“Look at us, look at this country,” Markovitch tells his friend Feinberg, in one of his most inspired moments. “Two thousand years we’ve been hoping for her, waiting for her, sleeping at night with our arms around the sleeves of her nightdress, because what is history if not the sleeves of a nightdress that has no smell? And you think she wants us? You think this country returns our love? Nonsense! She vomits us up time and time again, sends us to hell….”
When asked in a previous interview, whether her view of Israel is that of holding on to a land that doesn’t want it, Gundar-Goshen has said, “I didn’t want to write a 400-page metaphor. I’m a very political person so when I want to say something political I sign a petition. I don’t think literature is a petition. It is a question not a statement. For me it was important to write a love story about what human beings can do to other human beings, either by being compassionate or cruel.” Still, the politics shines through—not proclaimed, but hinted. Here is the sweep of history, Gundar-Goshen seems to assert, but look beneath— there are people living their lives, small and fabulous.