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The Blasphemy of Hope

RETURNING LOST LOVES A Novel; By Yehoshua Kenaz, Translated from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu; Steerforth Press: 242 pp., $14 paper

March 18, 2001|JONATHAN LEVI | Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review

Reading Israeli author Yehoshua Kenaz's latest novel, "Returning Lost Loves," I was reminded of William Wymark Jacobs' ghost story, "The Monkey's Paw'-or at least of the Alfred Hitchcock episode of the same. The monkey's paw of the Jacobs story is a mysterious Asiatic talisman that, in solidarity with all mysterious talismans, grants its owner three wishes. Holding the paw in his right hand, the father of a family makes the first of three wishes, asking for a million dollars. Literalist that it is, the monkey's paw grants him the money-but it is the insurance money paid to him upon the death of his son in a horrible accident. In the depths of her grief, the mother prevails upon the father to wish their son alive again. It is only a ghostly knock on the door that wakes the father to the true horror of the zombie he has raised from the dead. With his final wish, the father returns his son to the grave. The moral of the story is clear: Be careful what you wish for in case you actually get it.

The residents of the thoroughly modern apartment complex in Tel Aviv around which "Returning Lost Loves" evolves have thoroughly modern wishes. Hezi wants a hideaway for his mistress Gabi. Schlumpy, singular Aviram, who lives in the apartment next door with his barking dog, wants Gabi. Mr. Schwartz, the head of the house committee, wants to rid the complex of crooked interlopers who are building an illegal apartment over a storehouse. The interlopers want a safe place for their beloved daughter. Their contractor, Ezra, wants his son, Eyal, a deserter from the army, to return and face his punishment and restore the family's Zionist dignity.

This novel of interlocking wishes appears on first blush to be a relatively pedestrian collection of one-act plays performed in the post-biblical black box theater of contemporary Israel (in a translation equally odd, in which the Hebrew minyan becomes the denaturalized "quorum'). It is an Israel in which the early pioneers are either dead or in need of wheelchairs, unable or unwilling to speak, the young men are either crazy or depressed and the border town of Eilat is unrecognizable. "Blond girls from Sweden lie there naked on the beach," says one alte cocker, "everything on display. Anyone can go up to some girl, look at her and have her. And little children playing on the beach see it all." It is a Tel Aviv that resembles a '60s version of New York as painted by, say, Stephen Sondheim, a city of go-getters in a booming real estate market and lonely people trying to sweep their lives clean of encroaching detachment.

But as the wishes turn to reality, Kenaz's aim becomes increasingly clear. With the same sense of Victorian inevitability that drove both Jacobs (and Hitchcock, for that matter), Kenaz turns story into parable.

What is monkey's paw for Orientalism is cabala for Judaism. As Gabi rides the bus one day, she overhears a secular girl talking about a lovelorn friend so distracted that she sought the advice of a mystic kabbalist who advertised "RETURNS LOST LOVES" to bring back a wayward boyfriend. Not only does the girl sleep better the next night but, the following morning, her lost Remmy finds her on the street and professes his returned, undying love. They repair to a cafe "and she looks at him and says to herself: It looks just like Remmy, talks just like Remmy, knows all the details of their story, but nevertheless it isn't him, it's like somebody else. Everything's exactly the same, except for the look in his eyes, as if somebody else is looking out of them."

So discover all of Kenaz's lonely heroes. They wish, and they get what they ask for. But the look in the eyes is different, the beloved becomes ugly, the prodigal son knocking at the door must be kept out at all costs.

The Law of Return, as Israel, its friends, its enemies and, above all, its writers have discovered, is imperfect. "You're thieves," yells old Mr. Schwartz. "You stole a piece of land that isn't yours and you're building on it against the law! It's going to be pulled down!" It is the cry of the Zionists against the Palestinians, but it is also the cry of the Palestinians against the settlers on the West Bank, the cry of the Ashkenazi Jews against the Sephardic arrivistes, the cry of wives against mistresses who are squatting on their real estate and of their husbands and fathers against growing sons who have resettled their Zionist beliefs, the world against the advances of time that changes all geographies.

Hold the monkey's paw up in the air, consult a cabalist: It doesn't matter. At the end, "Returning Lost Loves" speaks with the passion and pessimism of Old Testament prophecy. The Second Temple is a pale shadow of the first, what comes around a second time is inevitably a disappointment. Our wishes are never foolproof against the original sin, the blasphemy of hope.

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