Saturday, July 30, 2016

A harpist for whom someone else pulls the strings (Books - The Extra by A. B. Yehoshua)

A. B. Yehoshua is one of just a few Israeli writers, along with Amos Oz and David Grossman, whose novels are regularly translated and make their way to the U.S. I especially enjoyed his Mr. Mani, a sweeping tale of six generations of a Sephardic family.  His latest The Extra trans. Stuart Schoffman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) concerns Noga, an Israeli-born harpist, living in Holland.  Following her father's death, her brother wishes their mother to leave her Jerusalem apartment and move to an assisted living facility near his home. His mother resists, so a compromise is reached - she will try out the facility for three months.  Through a quirk of the law, she risks losing her Jerusalem apartment if it is not occupied by a member of the family, so Noga is asked to take a leave from her job with a Dutch orchestra and stay in Jerusalem for that period.

I have experienced Yehoshua's exploration of themes of responsibility, family, and how they intersect with professional life in other works.  He is especially skilled at writing a credible family relationships - complete with the way childhood patterns make their way into adulthood, their obfuscation, their guilt.  What I enjoyed especially in this novel is that Noga's brother finds her work as an extra in film and television projects.  During her time in Jerusalem, as Noga mourns her recently deceased father, and is forced to confront her ex-husband and revisit the disagreements they had about whether to have children. The concept of this novel conceives of her Jerusalem stay as a sustained fantasy during which she tries on all sorts of different characters but is always in the background of someone else's story. 

All the ingredients are here for a splendid creation and yet, they don't add up.  Several aspects of the novel fell short for me, the biggest was the premise.  Yehoshua tries his darnedest to compel Noga's presence in Jerusalem, to trap her there in order to create the sense of being trapped, of life-suspended, but I did not find the peculiar residence statute convincing (and for all I know, it's true).  In some ways, Yehoshua worked too hard.  I might have been more convinced had Noga compelled herself to stay, rather than make is the fault of her brother, or the fault of the law.  Then the weirdness of the dream-like-period of her life would have been of her own making. Here it seemed a borrowed reality and, when she left it, she would escape.  Part of the plot rides on Noga's revisiting her decision to not have children.  She faces a tribunal of opinion - her ex-husband's, her father's, her mother's - about a decision which was ultimately her own.  This was hardly lacking in reality but I found the tone strangely judgmental, as though she could have made the "right" decision and did not.  The most constant impediment to my appreciation of the novel was the translation.  The prose was dated and clunky, and the dialogue particularly stilted, especially given the relatively young age of the central character.  Using the job of an extra as a device in this story made my mind (unsurprisingly) to the job of acting.  The skeleton of one's part is determined by others - writers, directors.  But it is the job of the actor to create a person with agency who is eternally confronting something new.  Noga seemed to have no agency and as a result, her performance was uncompelling - a harpist, who makes an unplanned detour as an actress, but for whom someone else is pulling the strings.

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