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An Egyptian Jewish Family Retraces Its Personal Diaspora

Book Review

THE ONE FACING US, by Ronit Matalon, Translated from the Hebrew, by Marsha WeinsteinMetropolitan, $25, 296 pages

July 22, 1998|SUSIE LINFIELD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To call "The One Facing Us" fragmentary, impressionistic and elusive would be an understatement. It is also, sometimes, confusing and difficult to follow, although in the end that hardly matters. Ronit Matalon's story (although there is never anything approaching a linear story line) of the scattering--to Israel, to Africa, to the United States--of a once-elegant, once-wealthy Egyptian Jewish clan draws you in like a child's fairy tale turned on its head, or a hazy but mesmerizing dream. It is full of strange and wondrous people and events, although it is soaked through, too, with the particular bewilderment of those who have been sideswiped by history.

The novel is built around a set of family photographs; each chapter attempts to "explain" the story behind the snapshot. It is narrated by 17-year-old Esther, who has been sent by her family in Israel to visit her Uncle Sicourelle, a tough, successful businessman in Cameroon. Esther herself remains a cipher--we learn almost nothing about her, and her flatness as a character (especially in dialogue scenes) constitutes the book's major weakness. But she is an astute observer of others, and a superb narrator of her family's history: its greatness, its stupidities, its cohesions, its ruptures, its radically imperfect modes of survival. "Everything had gone awry," Esther notes of the preceding generation, which, forced by both newfound poverty and new politics, abandoned Cairo in the late 1940s. "[E]ach uncle had been kicked into his own corner, left to determine his own life, unique as the initials embroidered, thread by thread, on his baby blanket and good sheets."

We are introduced to fierce Nona Fortuna, Esther's blind maternal grandmother, who "avoided the intimacy of knowing" and whose "perfection was hard-won. . . . [I]t exacted every last drop of spontaneity, warmth, candor and joy. . . . She was ever in the grip of renunciation." We meet Esther's mother, Ines, who had seven abortions and "had wanted to get rid of me, too"; and her youngest uncle, Edouard, who learned "to wear the protective camouflage of the weak, an air of obsequious courtesy," and who becomes one of the "toughest and cruelest" policemen in Gaza.

We encounter tyrannical Uncle Sicourelle, who, on his own in Africa, "had no choice but to look the world in the eye," and his sentimental, desperately unhappy wife, whose "impenetrability has taken on a life of its own, become an empire with cities and bridges, neighborhoods and villages, laws, traffic lights, alley cats." We learn of Esther's timid, passionless paternal grandmother, a coddled Levantine aristocrat--embalmed in convention, terrified of change, "frozen in a strange, worldly death of stultifying inner contradictions." And we meet Esther's father, Robert, "always in the wrong place, doing the wrong things, . . . leaving some ugliness behind you, some little pool of tragedy, someone's face streaked with sorrow."

This is a family for whom Egypt, not Israel, is the promised land--a family that views Jerusalem, not Douala, as the Diaspora. Esther's father reveres Nasser, loathes Zionism and sums up his former life in Egypt as "good people, good country, no Holocaust." Nona Fortuna regards Israelis as "rude and charmless, cruel and ridiculous in their endless war over a piece of land she didn't consider 'worth spit.' The pioneering Zionist spirit . . . of disdain for anything not achieved through struggle . . . was anathema to her." Ines, a rabbi's maid in Tel Aviv, recalls simply, "We were all very happy in Egypt, much happier than here." Only the eldest brother, Moise--"the one with the strong nerves in a family of weak, jittery types"--is an ardent Zionist and a willing emigre. But he is eventually betrayed by fellow kibbutzniks, who prefer Ashkenazis.

While in Cameroon, Esther experiences no epiphanies, resolves no conflicts, has no great adventures. There is nothing particularly dramatic about her sojourn; yet at the end of this novel, the reader is left with a shimmering but indelible sense of her family's profound, disturbing experiences of loss and displacement. Of course, those very experiences have been filtered through memory, through time, through the needs and self-serving exigencies of the present--through Esther, that is, and through the subjectively remembered tales (and the equally important silences) her relatives have passed down to her. "It is no longer possible to separate what the photographer saw from what time has done to the photograph," Esther observes. "The future has wormed its way into the past, tugging at the instant of the photograph's becoming."

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