Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Human Resources Manager

Voices of the People:
Chorus, Confession and Confidence in
A Woman in Jerusalem
A.B. Yehoshua, 2004

A nameless Human Resources Manager –– let us call him HR –– undertakes a journey that not only becomes personally transformative, but international in scope and universal in significance. A PR exercise for a Jerusalem bakery becomes a Mission for the nation of Israel, a diplomatic intervention in the international community, and finally a beacon of hope for humanity. On his journey, HR is accompanied by voices: the voice of his boss to be sure, insisting on the urgency, the rightness, of the Mission, but also the voices of family, colleagues, bureaucrats, and the voices of the random people HR encounters because of their connection to Yulia Ragaev.            

It is the legacy of Yulia Ragaev for which HR has assumed responsibility. But responsibility in what sense? In an adventure that starts with a bureaucratic snafu creating petty annoyances for HR, the manager assumes responsibility, first for Yulia’s person, then for the disposition of her remains, and ultimately for the existential meaning of her life. As HR’s destiny and that of Yulia begin to converge, his progress is regularly marked by encounters with the voices of representatives of the collective – voices very like those from the chorus in an ancient Greek drama – warning, sympathizing, cajoling, commenting on the action and sometimes even driving the action.

The chorus in antiquity gave expression to a variety of collective voices, many of which articulated the point of view of marginal members of society. Thus while some plays had choruses representing robust members of Greek society – men of military age, for example – many plays featured choruses composed of old men, women, or slaves. Since the chorus was expected to express a limited point of view, not necessarily that of the playwright, the marginal status of the groups represented in some choruses provided an opportunity for the articulation of alternative, even countercultural perspectives. The identity of the chorus was a key element of any Greek play because discovery of the main actors’ situation and character often took place in dialogues with the chorus. For tragedies, the chorus might consist of any of the groups mentioned above. In comedies by Aristophanes, there are choruses of frogs and birds. Whatever the identity of the chorus, it remained consistent from beginning to end of any particular play. By contrast, the chorus in A Woman in Jerusalem is a metamorphic chorus that changes its identity every time HR crosses its path.

What is a traditional Greek chorus doing in a contemporary Israeli novel?
you might ask. The primary structural function of the chorus is to mark the transitions in HR’s journey.

An Israeli Everyman

All too soon HR’s mission becomes complicated,
its rationale at the same time more grandiose
 and more dubious.

HR is a kind of Everyman, and we are given sketchy information on his appearance.
If the narrative of A Woman in Jerusalem at first appears deceptively simple, that is because the novel is rather abstract. Too grounded particulars, too embedded in a detailed setting to be an allegory, A Woman in Jerusalem is not quite a realistic novel either. Launched on a quirky, not to say quixotic, pilgrimage, HR discovers, as, along the way, he crosses various boundaries – bureaucratic obstacles, state frontiers, and the boundaries between private and public, life and death – a growing intimacy with the woman in his charge. While his particular reaction to what he encounters at every juncture of his journey may at times be masked, the meaning of each transition from the collective point of view is articulated for the reader by the chorus: a chorus that guards each crossing like a sentry.

What is HR’s Mission?

What is HR’s Mission? Though it can be simply stated, as if it were a plausible undertaking, HR’s Mission accrues a surreal, even outlandish quality as he progresses towards his goal, inciting scandal and excitement in several communities, and paradoxically gaining in overarching significance at the same time. For HR has been deputed to provide for the burial of a dismissed company employee killed in a terrorist attack.

The plan for HR’s Mission begins modestly. The rationale for the Mission is plausible at the outset. The original intentions of the company owner, HR’s boss, perhaps slightly muddled by self-deception, are nevertheless benignant. Yet all too soon, with the intervention of a journalist and the consequent awakening of a near-archetypal Israeli guilt complex, the Mission becomes complicated, its rationale at the same time more grandiose and more dubious. The emphasis in the company owner’s mind goes from a simple rationale of doing justice in a matter of labor relations, to making atonement on an international scale for accidental misfortune, for terrorism, for evil itself. As HR’s practical difficulties in carrying out his Mission increase, the rationale for the Mission evolves from plausible to dubiously grandiose to bordering on lunacy.

If we learn anything from reading this book, it’s that the Israelis –always under siege – only look crazy from the outside. Actually they are sane people in a crazy world, doing their best to manage the craziness.

These Israelis are, in some sense, crazy. But how crazy? The novel of A.B.Yehoshua is haunted by its literary predecessor, Dostoyevsky, who exposed the craziness of the Russian psyche (not distinct from the human soul, to be sure) in the form of confession and scandal in the Russian novel. Conversations in Dostoevsky’s novels frequently spill over into confessions, a messy but dramatic way his characters have of exposing the repressed – secrets and scandals – that must be integrated into conscious, even public awareness in order for Russian soul and society to be made whole again. There is some Dostoevskian craziness in Yehoshua’s A Woman in Jerusalem, but it is craziness of a different order. In Yehoshua’s novel, too, confession serves the purpose of integrating the fiercely repressed truth, and with confession comes a modicum of scandal. But while the confessions of Dostoevsky’s characters take place in what is essentially a tragic universe, the universe in which the characters of A Woman in Jerusalem behave, misbehave, and learn is comic in nature.

The behavior of HR’s colleagues, Israeli bureaucrats, and other members of society at times verges on lunacy, but the Israelis are not, for all the extremity of their existential plight, Dostoevskian-crazy. In the course of the novel, we see HR summoning just enough mindfulness in the tough situations in which he is placed, and even using gentle humor to get the better of his boss’s atonement mania.

If in fact if we learn anything from reading this book, it is that the Israelis, always keeping vigil, always under siege, only look crazy from the outside. Actually they are sane people in a crazy world, doing their best to stay alert and manage the craziness. This is very far from being the author’s message in A Woman in Jerusalem, but can be inferred from the evolution of HR’s character, based on some of the situations he faces at home and abroad as he tries to repatriate Yulia’s remains.

A Man on a Mission. This would be a simple enough story, if not for the many voices dramatizing divergent meanings, social contexts, points of view. Chorus and confession

are the vehicles Yehoshua uses to initiate the reader into the strange world of
A Woman in Jerusalem, at once a story of the political realities of Israel’s situation, and a literary parable of humanitarian relevance. 

The Chorus in A Woman in Jerusalem

Chorus and Confession are the vehicles Yehoshua uses to introduce the strange world of A Woman in Jerusalem.

There are fifteen instances of choral speaking in A Woman in Jerusalem. The chorus in this contemporary novel, like the chorus in the ancient Greek drama, is an entity of crucial importance, communicating popular reactions to events, communal understanding, and sometimes transcendent meaning. In Yehoshua’s novel, the chorus is deployed as a formal device, marking transitions in the manager’s journey. The choral presence in the novel is symmetrical. There are three sections to the novel: Part I. The Manager, Part II, The Mission, and Part III, The Journey, and the chorus appears five times in each section. How do we know? We know because signaling the dramatization of  each choral voice, the author uses italics to designate the choral moment. The roles that the chorus plays in A Woman in Jerusalem are as follows:

Part I, The Manager

1.     The People of Jerusalem
2.     The Night Shift Workers
3.     The Cafeteria Workers
4.     Security Workers at Mount Scopus Hospital
5.     The Six Sisters: Yulia’s Orthodox Neighbors

Part II, The Mission

6.     Employees at Conference of Social Workers
7.     Bartenders
8.     The Six Sisters
9.     Citizens of Yulia’s Country at the Airport
10.  Citizens of Yulia’s Country

Part III, The Journey

11.  Aggrieved People of Yulia’s Country
12.  The Night Watch at Military Installation in Yulia’s Country
13.  The Dream-Bearers
14.  Vendors at the Market
15.  Villagers of Yulia’s Birthplace

In Part I of the book, the chorus first manifests as the voice of the Jewish citizens of Jerusalem. The chorus recalls how they had hoped, that year, that Jerusalem’s winter of bountiful rain, which is just beginning to fall at the start of HR’s story, “might cool the suicidal zeal of our enemies.” (p. 9) Unlike a theatrical chorus, which has a physical presence on stage, and exists contemporaneously with the actors, the first chorus of A Woman in Jerusalem is disembodied and has a different time-sense –– not only from HR – but from the omniscient narrator, whose all-knowingness is limited to the story as it unfolds in the present.

The omniscient narrator, who has been telling the story of HR’s new assignment, is interrupted by this collective voice that at first appears to be ruminating on the weather. In addition to marking HR’s transition from quotidian manager to Man on a Company Mission (he has just received the assignment from the factory owner and been told: “You are the only one who can do it.” p. 9), this first manifestation of the choral voice immediately establishes a wider perspective. This is a world of changeable weather, of chaos and terrorism amidst the routine autumn days HR spends at the office.

Next in Part I, the chorus manifests as the voices of a bunch of gossipy night shift workers, marking the moment when, arriving on the bakery floor with his secretary, HR officially begins his investigation. Not long after, a chorus of tired but curious cafeteria workers notes the body language of the night shift supervisor as he makes full confession of his misdeeds to HR. Here the chorus acts a witness to the scandal of the supervisor’s relationship with Yulia: “we were shocked to see the older man bury his face in his hands as if hiding something painful or shameful.” (p. 44) As HR takes his investigation to the brink of the death realm, voices from the staff hut at Mount Scopus Hospital announce HR’s visit to the morgue. Finally, a chorus of six sisters, neighbors at the apartment where Yulia lived, announce HR’s visit to Yulia’s room, marking the beginning of a more intimate relationship between Yulia and HR.

The chorus of six Orthodox sisters, which appears twice in the novel, is one of Yehoshua’s most dynamic realizations of the choral convention. The sisters scream at HR, almost in hysterics. Up past their bedtime, they are bursting so with curiosity that they naturally transgress – disobeying their parents’ orders by opening the door to a stranger. The transgression of the labile chorus mirrors HR’s transgressive behavior in visiting Yulia’s room. The six sisters constitute a single witness, naively accepting HR’s cover story [that Yulia has been injured and is in hospital, and HR has come by to pick up some of her things] and by virtue of their credulity, casting doubt on the rationale for HR’s visit to Yulia’s room.

Why didn’t Yehoshua just narrate HR’s encounter with the six sisters in the third person? Why dramatize the sisters as manifesting through a choral voice?

Considering the dynamic, interactive nature of this particular chorus raises the question of why Yehoshua didn’t just narrate the scene of the encounter between HR and the girls, telling it in the third person voice of the omniscient author. This of course leads to the larger question: why have these choruses at all? In the case of the six sisters chorus, formally setting this moment in the story apart, and presenting the sisters as one of several manifestations of the voice of the collective (or in the case of the dream-bearers, of the collective unconscious) gives them far more weight and authority than would a realistic depiction of six screaming little girls in their nightgowns. To answer the larger question about the use of the chorus in the book as a whole, when most of the scenes involving the chorus could as easily have been enacted as part of the third-person narrative, requires looking at all fifteen instances of the chorus.

It’s possible though to make a few preliminary observations concerning the utility of the chorus in this modern novel. Formally, the regular, symmetrical appearance of the chorus allows for variety in the narrative, comparable to the now frequent use by contemporary novelists of multiple points of view. Philosophically, the presence of the chorus as an alternative source of knowledge to that of the omniscient author (the omniscient author as a construction: not to be confused with A.B. Yehoshua) delimits the realm of “omniscience” and indicates multiple sources of partial truth, as opposed to the one true story. In fact in A Woman in Jerusalem, the omniscient author is quite authoritative (there is no reason, for example, to think ‘him’ an unreliable narrator), so there is inherent tension between the presumption of omniscience, or authorial authority, and the alternative schema involving uncertainty, even skepticism, arising from the presence of several claimants to at least a partial truth.

Social Workers and Bartenders, Sisters and Countrywomen

The momentum of Part II of the novel, The Mission, is geared to a scenic pattern. Among the most vivid scenes are the scene in which HR shows the owner Yulia’s room (and the ‘hyperactive’ owner investigates by ogling, sniffing, and rifling through Yulia’s possessions); HR’s visit with his daughter (in which HR opens up and communicates his confidence in her); and the scene at the airport, in which HR stands up for Yulia’s fourteen year-old son, who wants his grandmother to be present at the burial. Punctuating these heightened moments are the choral voices announcing the stations of HR’s journey in his mission to fulfill his company’s commitment to honor Yulia.

During HR’s transition from the intimacy of Yulia’s room to the bureaucracy of Immigration, it is the chorus of social workers who notice his strong identification with his charge: “He spelled her name and recited her visa number as if it were his own ID.” (pp. 105-6) Initially repelled by the association of his name with hers, HR is now mistaken for a relative. Next, the chorus of bartenders, marking HR’s transition from Immigration to a talk with the office manager, confirms that he’s a regular.

HR thinks:“This is turning into a collective mania.”

Reacting to the desire of his office manager and her husband to pack things for Yulia’s journey, HR thinks: “This is turning into a collective mania.” (p. 129) Though we appear to be moving into the territory of a hyperactive, Dostoevskian lunacy, it is worth noting how Yehoshua’s HR uses humor to assign these antics to the rubric of benign folly: “The old man has flipped out and is taking everyone with him,” HR muses; then observes, his perception described in the words of the author: “Even the ever-brighter sun, dipping westward, as it tinted the Knesset building with a coppery wash, seemed to be celebrating his mission.” (p. 129)

Here Yehoshua parts company with Dostoevsky, for Dostoevsky is always about crazy people in crazy world, whereas Yehoshua is about sane people in a crazy world.

Indeed, shortly after HR and the office manager banter about atonement and lunacy, the owner proposes delivering the coffin along with a gift box: a kind of cornucopia consisting of baked goods, paper supplies, and bags of assorted crumbs from the factory. (p. 135) Here too, HR banters with his colleague, joking with the owner about the absurdity of a gift box: “There could no longer be any doubt. Atonement was turning into lunacy. ‘A well-intentioned lunacy though,’ the owner said.” The author’s light irony moves the action away from manic drama to the depiction of people perhaps driven by obscure impulses, but ultimately equipped to manage the situation. Here Yehoshua parts company with Dostoevsky. For Dostoevsky is always about crazy people (and a few sane) in a crazy world, whereas Yehoshua is about sane people (and a few hyperactives) in a crazy world.

When HR returns to Yulia’s dwelling and encounters the still very excitable six sisters, the chorus provides additional information about Yulia’s unusual impact on others. When the family was told that Yulia was actually dead, “Every one of us six sisters saw our father turn pale and start to tremble. . . he must have been in love with that foreign woman.” (p. 130) Such an intimate choral role is appropriate to Jerusalem; once the cortège of HR, Yulia’s coffin and the reporter reach the airport of their destination, the chorus turns public, expressing a baffled view of Israel’s travails. When the coffin arrives at this new point of transition, it’s: “Uh-oh! Another coffin. . . Could someone please tell us what’s happening over there in the Holy Land?” (p. 138) Finally as the cortège departs the airport, a chorus of Yulia’s countrywomen decry the presence of the coffin: “Who died? Where? Where is the body being taken?” Here, in this generic Eastern European city with its skyline of spires and domes, the chorus provides an expression of common, recurrent concerns about things the people don’t understand.

Night Watch and Dream-Bearers: “I am a human resources manager”

Part III, The Journey, begins with a chorus of aggrieved people from the provincial capitol of Yulia’s country. “Tell us, you hard people” they begin, addressing the Israelis, “after desecrating the Holy Land what right do you have to trample on our feelings?” Entangled in their grievances is the chorus’s indignation about the fact that Yulia’s coffin has been left in a courtyard. The chorus – hostile, complaining, resentful – projects its feelings onto the conflict in the Middle East. The people don’t understand why this conflict has spilled over into its (presumably Eastern European) country.
The presence of the unattended coffin, left in a courtyard, is an insult to “our children”. HR has had to stay at the airport to meet Yulia’s son. Clearly there is no set protocol for handling this situation: the death of a compatriot in the sacred city of Jerusalem. Earlier HR expressed indignation to the Immigration official who informed him that the government would not send an escort along with the coffin: “Since when can you put a coffin on an airplane as though it were a suitcase?” (p. 123) In addition to indignation over the unattended coffin, the chorus feels threatened by the military trappings of the emissary’s cortège. Yulia’s fellow citizens berate the emissary (HR) for having come back “in an armored car from some ancient war”. Above all the chorus is concerned about the uncertainty surrounding the incident. Where has the coffin come from? Where is it going?

Again, the realism of this scene raises the question why Yehoshua chooses to dramatize these sentiments, perhaps typical of foreign countries in the region, through the collective voice of a chorus rather than by rendering the scene realistically as part of the third person narrative. One simple answer is that these ordinary people would likely not have the opportunity to enter into a dialogue with officialdom. As in the case of the chorus of the six sisters, the author’s use of the formal convention of the chorus lends resonance and authority to the feelings of these citizens of an anonymous country.

By dramatizing the night watch as a collective voice, the author reiterates the theme of the vigil that is so descriptive of HR, his company, and indeed Israel.

As HR’s journey continues across snow covered Siberian terrain, he is persuaded to take a detour by his drivers, who want to see a military installation that has been turned into a national museum and tourist site. Marking the transition to the museum is a chorus of the night watch at the military installation. One of the first voices from the chorus that we hear remarks:  “I’ve been serving this country for over fifty years” (p. 189). This is the voice of experience, commenting on the changes that have taken place since the end of the Cold War. Members of the night watch allude to the fact that there is an atomic shelter beneath them. Does the fact that a military installation has been turned into a museum indicate that the threat of nuclear destruction is over? The government of Yulia’s country seems confident about the future, believing perhaps that the peace that followed the dismantling of the Soviet Union is here to stay. Nevertheless, they feel that the approach of an armored car carrying a coffin is a bad omen.

By dramatizing the night watch as a collective voice, the author reiterates the theme of the vigil that is so prominently descriptive of HR, his company, and the Israeli bureaucrats in Part I of the novel. Thus at the insistence of the bakery owner, HR’s investigation of Yulia’s case takes him into the wee hours of the night. By representing the vigil of the night watch of this nameless Eastern European country, the author universalizes the theme.

The third chorus that HR encounters is the chorus of dream-bearers. This is the most surreal and symbolic form the chorus takes in Yehoshua’s novel. Who are the dream-bearers? They are some sort of mystical entity that knows exactly who HR is and knows of his present plight. They are in one sense healers, in another sense prognosticators. Thus the dream-bearers mark the transition from the airport to the first stopping point in the journey by armored car; the intervention of the dream-bearers brings respite to HR, and ultimately enables the journey to go forward. For having taken a detour to visit the military-base-cum-tourist site, with its new educational program: The War That Never Was, HR is now lies on a thin mattress in the barracks of the military base/museum.

Fortunately the dream-bearers – perhaps messengers from another world, perhaps voices from the collective unconscious – know everything they must know about HR to give him the dreams he needs. These will be a dreams for an ex-army officer, a divorced father of a teenage girl, a personnel manager charged with a unique mission: the repatriation of Yulia’s remains to her native country.

 Reminded by his surroundings of his military service, HR first dreams of the atomic shelter under the museum, then of nuclear disaster, a Jewish holiday, an empty classroom, and of Yulia. As HR’s soul begins to mirror Yulia’s, his dreams take on a mystical quality. Incorporated into his dreams are both the forces of destruction and the life force; HR dreams of the military base, the mystery of Yulia’s mesmerizing beauty, and the vitality she conveyed to those whose lives she touched. Indeed, HR has fallen in love with Yulia.

The metamorphic dream-image in which HR is both a man and an infant at the breast is a precursor of the archetype of the Roman Charity (Caritas Romana) that forms the core of Yehoshua’s most recent novel.

Dreaming the last dream sent by the dream-bearers in a state akin to lucid dreaming, HR wonders of Yulia’s death: “Is the bomber on his way to the market? Has the bomb already gone off?” (p. 198) At the same time, HR dreams of making love to Yulia .In the dream, HR is both a grown man making love to Yulia and an infant at the breast. The dream echoes certain aspects of the Caritas Romana or Roman Charity, a Roman theme with archetypal roots reaching even further back in antiquity. From an Etruscan medallion depicting a bearded Herakles nursing at Hera’s breast to the scene in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in which Rose of Sharon breast-feeds a starving stranger, the image of the Caritas Romana figures forth the full circle of life, illustrating the importance of nurture at the beginning of life and at life’s end.

 Indeed, the Caritas Romana is a central theme of A.B. Yehoshua’s most recent novel, The Retrospective, here associated with the motif in a 17th century painting depicting a prisoner in chains being offered the breast by a young woman. In the recent novel a film director makes reparation to his scriptwriter for a long-ago betrayal by filming a scene based on the Caritas Romana – a scene that was cancelled when the original film for which it was conceived was made. The metamorphic dream-image in which HR, in A Woman in Jerusalem, is both man and infant at the breast, is more a precursor of the Caritas Romana than a full-fledged realization of that archetype, which includes specific
narrative elements common to the 17thcentury paintings that illustrate the theme.

Choruses four and five of Part III are choruses of women. The fourth chorus, marking the transition from health to sickness and back again, consists of a group of vendors – presumably gypsies – whose stalls attracted HR during his first stopover on the journey. Having just consumed what he takes to be Tatar stew, HR is pursued by the vendors, who try to tell him to puke it up, but are prevented by the language barrier. Too late! HR is about to be wracked by food poisoning and unable to travel for the next two days. More than anything else, this chorus emphasizes local color and the picaresque nature of HR’s journey: one adventure follows fast upon the heels of another.

Chorus five consists of an anxious group of women from Yulia’s natal village. Aware that the coffin is about to arrive, and that Yulia’s mother still has not returned from her trip to the local monastery, the women, over-wrought and distraught, are in a quandary about what to do with the coffin if it arrives before Yulia’s mother does. This is a typical, even traditional ‘woe-is-me’ chorus. Like the conventional chorus of ancient Greek tragedy, this collective voice expresses almost an emotional paralysis when it comes to making a decision. Should the villagers go ahead with the burial? Should they put the coffin in the cottage of Yulia’s mother (they would have to break into the house) or in the church (where the odor of decomposition would disturb their prayers)? And who should speak at the funeral? Yulia left the village long ago –- no one remembers her as a young woman. In fact the chorus of villagers, purportedly expressing their inability to act, serves the deeper purpose of chronicling Yulia’s life from the time she left the village.

The villagers may no longer know Yulia, but they are well apprised of her trajectory: they know of the husband and the beautiful baby, of Yulia’s training to be an engineer, of her life in the provincial capitol as well as in Jerusalem. Moreover, the chorus knows Yulia’s story well enough to express its disapproval of her treatment by foreigners: “What were we to tell the delegation that was bringing us an engineer who had died as a cleaning woman in someone else’s war?” (p. 229)

Significantly, the fifth chorus of Part III marks HR’s transition from a state of malaise and uncertainty to a condition in which he completely embraces his role as a human resources manager – precisely because he has made that role over in his own image. HR is a leader, nothing less, and he immediately fills the authority vacuum by answering all of the villagers’ concerns and allaying their anxieties. From a bureaucrat who couldn’t even remember interviewing a beautiful woman to the champion and protector of that woman’s legacy, HR has undergone a complete transformation. It is with this renewed understanding of his role that he reassures the peasants: “I am not a courier who comes and goes. I am a human resources manager whose duty it is to remain with you until the last clod of earth has fallen on this woman’s grave. Only then will I return to my city, which exists for me as a bitter reality alone.” (p. 228) What a stirring speech! Of course, this being a novel by Yehoshua, HR’s speech is about to be ironically undercut when Yulia’s mother arrives and makes her feelings about the burial known. Nevertheless, HR’s commitment and leadership shine forth as aspects of his personal transformation.   

Confession and Confidence in A Woman in Jerusalem

The ghost of Dostoevsky haunts A.B.Yehoshua’s A Woman in Jerusalem. In Part I of the novel, a Dostoevsky-style confession burbles from the lips of the night supervisor, and even the factory owner displays a Dostoevskian mania in his obsession with atonement.  Perhaps it comes as no surprise that Yehoshua is interested in secular confession as a mode of discovery revealing character. Secular confession – with its literary antecedents from Rousseau to the Russian novel, has been used in romance and in realist narratives to validate characters’ sincerity and authenticity, or to exhibit their psychopathology. However, it is more of a surprise to learn that in his most recent novel, The Retrospective, Yehoshua, in the persona of autobiographical character Yair Moses, is also drawn to the Roman Catholic rite of confession.

In The Retrospective, Israeli film director Moses accepts an invitation to a retrospective of his early work in the Spanish pilgrimage city Santiago de Compostela, only to find upon arriving that the event is in effect being underwritten by the Catholic Church. Moses’ host, the director of the local film archive, is also a priest. Indeed, Moses first sees Juan de Viola emerging from a confessional booth. Guided, along with his actress companion, on a tour of the cathedral by animation teacher Pilar, Moses notes at the front of the building, “one last confessional, isolated and closed, apparently in use. Pilar asks the two to wait silently until the curtain is opened, and after a huge, red-faced man emerges, wiping away tears, she …pulls from the dark a short priest in a big robe.” (p. 24)

The secular confession…depends upon finding an appropriate confessor.

The conversation preceding the emergence of Juan de Viola, which begins as lighthearted banter with the tour guide about the willingness of Moses and actress Ruth to undergo confession or not – both are Israelis – reveals, nevertheless, Moses’ keen interest in what is going on in the confessional booths lining the walls of the cathedral. Telling Pilar that he won’t rule out making confession some day, Moses insists that he would first have to put his house in order, “Separating personal from professional sins, for which I would need a priest who is also an expert in film.” (p. 22) (He is about to meet one.) Moses has just one other condition: “But is it possible to take confession from someone who is neither a Christian nor a believer in God?” Moses’ secular ideal of confession, modeled after the church’s sacrament, requires above all that the soul of the sinner be prepared, in effect sanctified, and that the sinner speak to a confessor who is suitably agnostic.

The secular confession, then, is not just a matter of unloading intimacies and secrets; it depends upon finding an appropriate confessor. Minutes later, when asked to expand on his CV, Moses finds himself spilling the story of his life to the Mayor of Santiago de Compostela, whose listening demeanor is calm and patient, “like a therapist.” (p. 28) Atypically, Yehoshua satirizes his protagonist’s readiness to tell all: “Moses decides to expand a good deal, and looking over the great square of pilgrimage on this dazzling morning, he unspools his life story, the full director’s cut, outtakes and all.” (p. 26) Is it the Mayor’s demeanor that unlocks Moses’ disclosures? In fact, facing successive audiences at Q & A sessions following the screening of his early films, Moses turns out to be on a roll, and divulges a great deal about himself both as a professional and private person. Now we are back on Dostoevskian terrain, an environment where, once confessional mode is initiated, the impulse to unburden the self drives communication, and accelerates by its own momentum.

Confession in A Retrospective, with its procedural rule: prior to confessing, put your house in order and find the right confessor, is a more orderly, predictable narrative engine than confession in A Woman in Jerusalem, where the idiosyncrasies of confession create uncertainty. Accordingly, in Chapter Five, “Confession,” in A Retrospective, Moses seeks out the son of a nonagenarian actress, maverick monk Manuel, as his confessor; and in Chapter Six, “Putting the Old House in Order,” Moses visits his parents’ home and the apartment he lived in with his ex-wife to put these houses in order in actuality and metaphysically – in his mind. Moses’ confession to Manuel specifically relates to his “professional sins,” and by making this confession, he is, if not absolved, better able to proceed with a plan for making reparation. By contrast, confession in A Woman in Jerusalem is best described as an opportunistic event partaking of a symbiotic relationship: intended to clear the air, it raises questions as it answers them, exacerbating trust.

 The key confession in A Woman in Jerusalem, the supervisor’s confession in Part I of the novel, becomes a double confession. By looking closely at the way the first confession plays outs, we discover the reason for the second. For in true Dostoevskian fashion, the  ‘sinner,’ far from guilelessly spilling his story, is sizing up HR, his confessor, the whole time he is speaking. The model for self-conscious confession could be Jean-Jacques Rousseau himself, author of ground-breaking autobiography Les Confessions, or one of several fictional characters in Dostoevsky’s novels and stories. Take, for example, the character Stavrogin, whose confession in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed forms a pivotal moment in the novel. Craving judgment, Stavrogin orients his confession towards his intended audience. Stavrogin wants “everyone to look at” him and know him for a criminal, but because he despises everyone – as seen in his manipulative coarsening of the language of his written confession – he cannot accept their judgment. Stavrogin’s intended confession will bring about  no catharsis.

The night shift supervisor first tells his story to the resources manager. In a preamble to his confession, the supervisor, become enamored of Yulia, explains to HR that although nothing had happened between them, he had to ask the cleaning woman to leave because he ‘thought about her all the time.’ (p. 48) The supervisor has accurately intuited the naïve quality of HR’s empathy; in fact HR is primed to feel identified with the supervisor: “It was as if this woman ten years older than himself, whom he still couldn’t remember, was threatening to become a temptation for him, too.” (p. 47) Like any good storyteller, the supervisor forestalls against interruption by asking the indulgence of the kitchen workers until his story is complete.

A credulous listener, HR has been set up to be a validating confessor. The supervisor begins his tale, again asserting that it was “purely an emotional matter” and proceeding to exculpate himself in oddly self-serving ways. Describing his avowedly blameless conduct in what would appear to be conscientious detail, the supervisor elaborates on the nature of his infatuation: Yulia’s mere proximity had “seemed to promise something he had always known about but never dreamed of for himself.” (p. 48) Like many a literary confession preceding this one, the supervisor’s garrulous tell-all is driven by what critic George Steiner calls  “hysterical candor.” (Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, p. 164)

This confessional offering of too much information –– including a disquisition on the effect of Yulia’s eyes (Tatar or Mongol?) and smile – takes a strange turn when the supervisor sets about describing how his workers, out of respect for his feelings, and hoping the fulfillment of his love for Yulia would ‘soften his rough edges,’ began to collude in, and give permission to, his feelings. After more such verbiage, and without reference to any feeing of sorrow at Yulia’s death, the supervisor, appealing to HR as fellow man, fellow romantic, and fellow countryman, concludes with this dubious peroration: “Aware of how he, a man on the verge of retirement, was being encouraged to live out an impossible dream, one that was given greater legitimacy only by the desperate times the country was going through, he’d decided to dismiss the woman…” (p. 56)

Just hours later, ignorant of the fact that his boss has already heard the night shift supervisor’s confession first hand, HR will recap the confession in a state of emotional identification with the supervisor: “He told it like a detective story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end…When at last he reached the heart of the matter, he defended the supervisor as though pleading for his own self.” (p. 95)

Right after the supervisor told his story of love relinquished, there was a sequel in the cafeteria parking lot. Following HR out to his car, the supervisor appealed to him as to his only judge, and begged him to guard his story from the secretary, who earlier had tried, ferret-like, to dig it out of him. HR had reassured the supervisor that “Your story stays with me.” (p. 57)

HR’s boss, infected by the garrulous night supervisor, now launches into his own confession.

HR then arrives at his boss’s house only to discover, after relating his findings to his superior, that the supervisor has already called the boss and repeated his confession over the phone. The factory owner tells HR: “He couldn’t get over his talk with you. He felt the need to confess to me, too.” (p. 193) There ensues a dialogue about which of the two confessors, HR or his boss, made the better judge. HR’s boss claims that HR was “too fair.” Insisting that he is “the last one to be taken in by [the supervisor’s] sentimentality,” HR’s boss, now infected by the supervisor’s garrulousness, launches into his own confession. HR’s boss offers a story full of contradictions concerning his decision to put the supervisor on the night shift to quash the “scandals” he caused “even after he was married” – saying of the night shift: “It’s quieter there and the workers have no time for escapades.” (pp. 94-95) Thus does one confession beget another.

The supervisor’s confession plays an important role in the novel, showing HR at the start of his assignment as a man eager to please his boss, credulous, and more identified with the supervisor who dismissed the cleaning woman than with the employee who has become his responsibility. HR has been chosen to investigate the matter – HR, a man so officious, so depressed by his divorce that, although he once interviewed Yulia – a woman by all accounts possessing extraordinary beauty – he cannot remember ever having met her. Confession, promulgating the language of self-deception, paradoxically creates an atmosphere of mistrust. Expected to clear the air, these intensely dramatic scenes of secular confession fail to bring about catharsis or resolution.

The supervisor’s confession is also pivotal in motivating the action of the novel, and in clarifying the company’s responsibility towards Yulia. In his confession, the owner reveals the supervisor to have been a habitual offender who preyed on female employees; the supervisor’s confession, staged in the cafeteria for HR’s benefit, turns out to have been a partial truth at best.

In place of a confession, Part II, The Mission, features a confidence – HR’s unusually frank and intimate talk with his daughter.  Allotted a precious three quarters of an hour by his ex-wife in which to say good-bye to the teenage girl, HR makes a full disclosure of the story behind his mission. These moments of confidence are, in effect, an anti-confession. Rather than a confessor who elicits secrets, HR’s daughter is a catalyst of the storytelling that bonds the two. Rather than revealing some shocking truth in a process akin to a tragic agon, HR honestly and forthrightly reveals life as it is to a teenage girl who is ready to learn about life, death, and the strange ways of love: “…she asked about the cleaning woman. He was frank – he described the article that was due to appear the next day and the supervisor’s strange falling in love. Eyes wide with fear, she smiled in spite of herself at his account of his night in the morgue and his refusal to look at the dead woman, even though her beauty was considered special by all who saw her picture.” (p. 127)

A confidence is a dialogue, an exchange of two voices, a give and take.

Confession, born, on the one hand, of the need to be judged, and on the other, of the attempt to elicit truth under duress, yields ambiguous results in A Woman in Jerusalem. Confidences, by contrast, bring about an opening up to others, and an experience of true intimacy. Confessions are fundamentally monologues; though they may contain internal  dialogues, they are the product of one dominant, egocentric voice, in conversation with itself. Confidences are dialogues, the exchange of two voices, a give and take: “They talked on and on. Groping his way, he sought to assure her that he would never give up on her and that she should never despair of him. The reborn sun outside the window was sharpening its palette of colors as the day grew brighter. His daughter’s simple and honest questions and his candid replies had forged a new closeness between them.” (p. 127)

The City that Belongs to A Woman in Jerusalem

What is the existential meaning of Yulia’s life?

I stated in my introductory remarks that HR ultimately assumes responsibility for the existential meaning of Yulia’s life. What is the word ‘existential’ doing here? What does it add to the already sufficient phrase: ‘the meaning of life’? In one sense, ‘existential’ refers to the existence of Israel, and by extension of Jerusalem, of which Yulia – her life since coming to Jerusalem, her death in a terrorist bombing – becomes a part. Although in terms of its archetypal significance as homeland and promised land, Israel is almost a timeless “City on a Hill,” the political uncertainties surrounding Israel’s existence, the nation’s existential situation in the 21st century, pulls against the claim of timelessness. Israel’s existential position is described by Israeli author David Grossman in his novel To the End of the Land:

A few days later he asked her to show him the countries that were “against us.” She opened the atlas again and pointed to each country, each one after the other. “Wait, but where are we?” A glimmer of hope shone in his eyes: Maybe they weren’t on that page. She pointed with her pinky finger at Israel. A strange whimper escaped his lips, and he suddenly clung to her as hard as he could, fought and plowed his way into her with his whole body, as though trying to be swallowed up in it again…And then Ofer demanded numbers. When he heard there were four and a half million people in Israel, he was impressed, even reassured... “He was always a terribly logical child,” {his mother says:}”He wouldn’t stop until Ilan found out for him exactly the number of citizens of each Muslim country in the world…What do you do with a child like that?” (p. 374)

Jerusalem, symbolic center of three world religions, has a worldwide spiritual significance. The Hebrews of antiquity, subject to forced migration, were exhorted above all to remember Jerusalem: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, / Let my right hand forget her
cunning. . . Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, / If I prefer not Jerusalem above my my chief joy.” (Psalm 137)

Yulia is A Woman in Jerusalem, not ‘A Woman in Israel’. Jerusalem was the home she chose, the city she decided to immigrate to and stay in, despite the fact that she would work there, not as a trained engineer, but as a cleaning woman. Yulia chose Jerusalem twice: once at the time of her initial immigration, and once again when her Jewish boyfriend left, and Yulia decided to remain. Yulia is not Jewish. Moreover, a great deal is made of her foreignness, of the beauty and exoticism of her slanted eyes. Citizen of an unnamed Eastern European country, Yulia is supposed by all who knew her, or viewed her picture, to have Tatar blood. A marginal person in Israeli society, it was considered highly unusual, even magnanimous, that her former employer would acknowledge her humanity by taking the trouble of repatriating her remains to the country of her birth. Where, indeed, does Yulia – does the memory of Yulia – belong?

HR’s journey is structured like the parable that underlies Maurice Maeterlink’s 1908 play, The Bluebird: following a long, arduous quest, the desideratum, in this case the bluebird of happiness, is discovered close to home. In the case of HR, the personal transformation that occurs during the long journey to Yulia’s native village gives him the confidence to make a unilateral decision to carry out the unexpected wishes of Yulia’s mother: “she threw herself heartrendingly at his feet, pleading that her daughter be returned to the city that had taken her life. That way, she, too, the victim’s mother, would have a right to it.” (p. 230)

What is the existential meaning of Yulia’s life? Yulia’s mother, a devout Christian who has just spent a week praying at a monastery when Yulia’s coffin turns up at the village, seems to understand this best of all when she insists that the coffin be returned to Jerusalem, since Jerusalem is now Yulia’s city. “An engineer like that doesn’t come to Jerusalem just for work,” HR thinks, “She comes because she feels the shabby city is hers, too.” (p. 233) On paper a marginal person, somehow this woman with the startling eyes brought love and beauty into the lives of those who knew her, and this was so even after her death. She is the only person in the novel with a name: in this way the author reverses the usual anonymity that would be conferred upon such a person by hierarchy and bureaucracy, by death. The meaning of her life is existential, confirming the meaning of Jerusalem as a city of the world, and conferring meaning on the lives of the people of Jerusalem whose existence she magically touches.

Steiner, George.  Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, E.P. Dutton & Company, 1971, 354 pages.
Yehoshua, A.B. The Retrospective, Halban, 2013, 379 pages.
   Translated by Stuart Schoffman
Yehoshua, A. B.  A Woman in Jerusalem, Harcourt, Inc., 2004, 237 pages.
   Translated by Hillel Halkin

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