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The Lure That Is Jerusalem : MR. MANI By A. B. Yehoshua , Translated from Hebrew by Hillel Halkin , (Doubleday: $28; 366 pp.)

March 15, 1992|RICHARD EDER

In the 1840s, Mr. Mani is a Salonika merchant who impregnates his son's childless widow in order to perpetuate his line. In 1982, Mr. Mani is a Jerusalem judge who tries to hang himself after his wife's death. In the 1890s, Mr. Mani runs a Jerusalem birthing clinic, and throws himself under a locomotive out of hopeless passion for a young woman. In World War I, Mr. Mani spies for the Turks in Palestine and preaches to the bewildered Arab villagers that they must organize themselves to deal with the Jewish state that is to come. Today, Mr. Mani is a 7-year-old who lives on a kibbutz.

In A. B. Yehoshua's strange and resonant novel, there are either seven or eight generations of Manis; allowing for a Talmudic doubt whether a man siring a son on his daughter-in-law marks one generation or two. "Mr. Mani" has the force of incantation. Its theme is Jerusalem, less as an actual city than as the locus of history's desire and counterdesire; the wilderness watering-place to which the different species come in a perpetual common need and common estrangement.

Yehoshua tells the stories of the eight Manis, from Avraham in Salonika to Roni on the kibbutz, in five sections. Dealing in high-colored extremes, they are fashioned with precise complexity. The lives they recount pulse in zigzag slashes. They are the molten state of Jewish history; a history that erupted in the late 19th Century after centuries of quiescence, and began to flow gradually, with setbacks, uncertainties and contradiction, toward the Return.

Most brilliantly, Yehoshua suggests how the impulse to a Return could make itself felt to different Jews in different times and places. Only a few of the characters in "Mr. Mani" harbor a conscious Zionist ideology; and some who do--like one 19th-Century settler who believes it is to be achieved not by migration but by converting the Arabs to Judaism--get it wrong. For many in this richly imagined book, the call is no more than a sense of crisis in their own lives, like the oppressiveness that precedes a thunderstorm.

Yehoshua has chosen a charged means of telling his stories. Each section consists of a fractured dialogue; one character speaks, the other is mute. Yet as the speaker stops and shifts to reply to words we do not hear but infer, we get a picture of the silent one. Sometimes it is more vivid than that of the speaker.

This is a powerful device--Strindberg used it in "The Other"--but it has its dangers. It can force an artificial detail onto the speaker; he or she is compelled to say too much simply so that the reader can follow. And while the speaker moves through deepening and unexpected revelation, the silent partner is likely to remain static. In several of the dialogues, Yehoshua surmounts this difficulty. In others, he more or less succumbs to it, so that although they remain powerful as narration, they are dramatically flat. The mute characters are unable to fill the emotional space that their silence opens up for them.

The stories are told in reverse order. They begin with Hagar Shiloh, a Tel Aviv student whose lover, Efrayim Mani, asks her to go see his father in Jerusalem. Efrayim is on military duty; he has not heard from his father, recently widowed, and is worried about him. Hagar finds Gavriel Mani in a suicidal state; she stays and struggles with him until his despair passes. Later, she will bear her lover's child, and although Efrayim has left her, Gavriel will reassert his hold on his life and lineage by taking up his role as grandfather.

The voices in this story make an incisive contrast. Hagar is a modern Israeli, skeptical and trusting by turns. The dark tumult of Gavriel, with its hints of a people's millennial tragedy, is captured in the very difficulty she has telling her story. Her silent, skeptical auditor is her mother, who lives on a kibbutz. In Hagar's angry defensiveness and her mother's silence, we hear the generational struggle between the collective kibbutz ideology, and the stirrings of those who have broken away from it in a search for more private or personal values.

The second session takes us to Crete under the German occupation in World War II. It is an appalling story; so powerful as to verge on the unbearable. The narrator is a young German occupier; his silent interlocutor is his visiting mother, the proudly Prussian widow of a celebrated admiral. At first, we seem to be hearing the voice of a skeptic, pointing out to his indignant mother the prospect of a German defeat. Gradually, we see it as something else.

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