Sunday September 16, 2012
Of jealousy and ambition
Review by SHARIL DEWA
These threads overshadow the tumultous Arab-Israeli conflict, which is relegated to a backdrop in this novel.
Second Person Singular
Author: Sayed Kashua
Publisher: Grove Press, 346 pages
IN SAYED Kashua’s 2002 debut, Dancing Arabs, the author tackled the tensions between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. The novel’s nameless protagonist is a spawn of the two conflicting cultures who faces problems as he is seen to be supporting one side more than the other.
His 2004 follow-up, Let It Be Morning, sees a young journalist wanting to lead a quieter life with his new wife and baby in his parents’ hometown – an Arab village in Israel. Not long after his arrival, the village becomes a pawn in the power struggles in the Middle East.
In his third offering, Second Person Singular, Kashua returns to the theme of conflict, this time between two Arabs living in Israel. Unlike his first two books, this one sees him experimenting with multiple plot lines and presenting two protagonists who alternatively tell their respective stories in the seven parts that make up the novel.
The first plot line, told from a third-person perspective, follows the life of an Israeli of Arab descent who is referred to throughout the novel as just “the lawyer” – a socially and economically competitive man who holds dinners at his house with other Israeli Arabs who, he feels, match his level of distinction.
The lawyer feels he must show the Jewish Israelis that he has succeeded, and he does this by driving a Mercedes and living in a very exclusive area of Jerusalem.
While buying a second-hand copy of Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Story, he finds within its pages a love note written in his wife’s handwriting, but it’s not for him. This enrages the lawyer, enough for him to want to kill her, initially, before thoughts of divorce enter his head.
The book in which the lawyer finds the note originally belonged to a man named Yonatan. On this basis, he becomes paranoid about finding out who Yonatan is, and whether his wife was indeed having an affair.
The second plot line, told as a first-person narrative, centres on Amir, an Arab Israeli social worker who takes a second job caring for a Jewish man named Yonatan, who is in a vegetative state. His story starts six years before the lawyer’s.
In the beginning, Amir is employed as a social worker during the day and looks after Yonatan during the night. It is during this time spent with Yonatan that Amir starts to read and listen to his books and music. Eventually Amir starts to take over Yonatan’s identity, enrolling as Yonatan in one of the highly acclaimed univerisities in Jerusalem.
Predictably, the two plot lines converge towards the end of the novel. But Kashua does not make it easy for his readers, as the lawyer is not the friendliest of protagonists, and Amir posing as Yonatan is not easily likeable either.
As Second Person Singular is written from two different perspectives, the tenses alternate between the lead characters. This, together with the fact that the lawyer is only referred to by his profession, may be a tad annoying to some, as this hinders the flow of the novel.
I believe Kashua deliberately chose not to name the lawyer as he does not want to evoke any sympathy for him. Amir/Yonatan, on the other hand, comes across as more humble, thus making him seem like the nicer of the two.
Kashua does not devote equal time to both these characters. He presents the lawyer’s parts in a succinct manner, but elaborates on Amir’s story. Truth be told, I think the novel could have been better paced if Amir’s parts had been more concise.
While the novel has its editorial flaws, what is interesting about Second Person Singular is that it tells a great deal about Arab citizens living in Israel, and how they strive to aim high professionally. Most, if not all, of Israeli Arabs tend to be doctors, lawyers or accountants.
Following Kashua’s train of thought, once these Arabs attain Israeli citizenship after attending university, they do not return to their villages, where there are no employment opportunities. But in Jerusalem there is acceptance and a chance to make a decent living.
This novel also touches on the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict, the cultural differences between secular Arabs and Israelis, and the daily political realities for those living in or near Jerusalem and the West Bank.
But these issues are not as well presented as in Dancing Arabs, where the conflicts of the day are more graphic and in-depth. In this book, the clashes between the Arabs and Israelis, which have created deep-rooted resentment between both cultures, are relegated to background scenario.
Readers who have an interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict should stay away from Second Person Singular, essentially a novel about a jealous husband and a guy who decides he needs to be an Israeli to get ahead in life. It is best read as an experimental work with the author playing with tenses, characters and a plot that could have been better fleshed out.
Let’s hope Kashua’s next offering will restore him to the glory of his first two novels.