LONDON — Like the rest of the Israeli population, writer A.B. Yehoshua is currently in lockdown.
“I’m obeying the orders of the government and, as I am old man, I have to be patient and not complain too much,” says the 83-year-old acclaimed novelist, playwright and essayist, speaking over the phone from his Givatayim apartment. “I say to myself, there are so many people who have far more serious problems.”
Since the relatively recent death of his wife, Rivka, a renowned psychoanalyst, Yehoshua lives alone. But, he says, his children are taking care of him and he manages to cook for himself. “It’s not a problem.”
Yehoshua’s latest novel, “The Tunnel,” is about a man grappling with the early stages of dementia. Tender, slow paced, humorous — but at times also painful — it is a tale about deep love, memory and identity. Underpinning it is the close, loving and long relationship between its protagonist, Zvi Luria, a retired road engineer and Dina, his pediatrician wife of 48 years. Yehoshua admits there are aspects of his characters’ partnership that mirror what he shared with Rivka, who became ill and died during the writing of the book.
“The love between [Zvi and Dina] gave expression [to what we had]. When Rivka died, I didn’t know if I could continue to write the novel,” says Yehoshua. “I was so sorry and so sad in my darkness but little by little, I came back to continue to write it and create their sweet love.”
Yehoshua wanted to examine the impact of Zvi’s creeping dementia in a gentle way, he says, by showing how Zvi copes and tries to fight against a process that will eventually destroy who he is. In order to try and slow down the onset of the illness, Zvi’s neurologist advises him to find meaningful work in his field and, encouraged by wife, he volunteers to assist a young engineer at the Israel Roads Authority to plan a secret road for the army in the Ramon crater in the Negev Desert.
“For me, it was very important to push the novel into the desert,” Yehoshua says. “Half of Israel is desert and it is an extremely important part of our identity.”
In a nod to Yehoshua’s belief in traditional, classical Zionism, two of his characters go to Kibbutz Sde Boker to visit the graves of the country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion and his wife, Paula, who were known for being attached to the desert.
An Israeli fixture
A.B. Yehoshua, (the B refers to Bulli, a childhood nickname) is one of the giants of Israeli literature. Born in 1936, in Jerusalem, he is often referred to as a member of the “generation of the state,” which includes other notable, celebrated writers, such as Aharon Appelfeld and Amos Oz, both of whom also came of age after the establishment of the State of Israel and drew upon the problems facing their country in their writing.
Yehoshua has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Israel Prize in 1995, the Dan David prize in 2017, and in 2005 he was shortlisted for the International Man Booker. An ardent peace activist, Yehoshua has also used his literary voice as a social and political commentator. He is an outspoken critic of Israeli and Palestinian policies and for decades was a die-hard believer in the two-state solution — the vision of a secure Israel alongside a Palestinian state. In the last few years, however, his position has changed, partly, he says, due to the question of the settlements.
“The settlements are making the possibility of the creation of a Palestinian state no longer possible. The Palestinians won’t agree to have a state without East Jerusalem as part of the major city, so we are moving together to a one state solution. We have to find a way to maintain that one state with equal rights for both Palestinians and Israelis.”
Searching for a solution
Israeli respect for, and recognition of, the Palestinians is often present in Yehoshua’s novels. In “The Tunnel,” there is a mystery about a Palestinian family living, or trapped, on a hill, on the route of the proposed new road. Should the family be evicted, or, as Luria suggests, should a tunnel be built beneath it?
The intertwined identities of Jewish Israelis and the Palestinians become apparent — a situation that embodies Yehoshua’s belief in the plan for a one state solution; a topic he returns to several times during his conversation with The Times of Israel: “We have to integrate the Palestinians into Israel, [in a proposal conceived either] by the right or the left.”
Yet the novel is not political, Yehoshua points out. The main focus of the narrative centers on Zvi’s dementia and the ways in which he attempts to overcome it. The question of the Palestinian family is just another subject raised in the book, he says, not the sole theme.
The tunnel represents a link between Luria’s present and his future, characterized by his brain’s slow demise.
“I symbolize the need for the little positive things in order to be more attentive to life and to participate in it,” says Yehoshua. Zvi creates innovative solutions to assist himself with his forgetfulness, including tattooing his car ignition code onto his arm. Although this “code of memory” is a symbol of the Holocaust, explains Yehoshua, to Zvi it is a symbol that enables him to maintain his memory and continue to be active. By controlling his car, he can live his life.
But sometimes, Zvi’s memory loss and vulnerability result in comedic moments: he confuses first names, takes home the wrong child from his grandson’s kindergarten, and his repeated buying of tomatoes eventually leads to numerous plates of shakshuka.
On the other hand, too much memory is not always good, insists Yehoshua: “To forget is also a positive element.” Remembering can be an obstacle to different communities connecting, he says. Tunnels exist between different identities, such as between religious and secular, between the left and right.
“We must have more connections. This is a challenge to us [in Israel] — to break the burdens of different groups and to fight the way of solidarity, collaboration and identity,” he says.
In some ways, the coronavirus crisis is helping the process along. It is also further pushing the country in the direction of a one state solution, says Yehoshua, as many Palestinian doctors and nurses work alongside their Israeli colleagues in hospitals.
“We are in the same condition, the same fate. We have to prepare ourselves for a kind of unity. Perhaps, the way in which this unity will work is the way of the future,” he says.