Mr. Mani

views updated

Mr. Mani

by A. B. Yehoshua


A novel in five parts, set tn various times (1848, 1897, 1918, 1944, and 1982) and places (Jerusalem, Beirut, Athens, Poland, and Crete); published in Hebrew (as Mar Mani,) in 1990, in English in 1992.


Five separate narrators describe their encounters with six generations of the Mani femily, whose personal history intertwines with key moments in Jewish history.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

A. B. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s leading writers, was bom in Jerusalem in 1936. Unlike most prominent Israeli cultural figures, he was born into a Sephardi, rather than an Ashkenazi, Jewish family. His father’s family has lived in Jerusalem for five generations; his mother came from a wealthy Francophone Moroccan family whose members immigrated to Palestine in 1932. Yehoshua attended a secular “Hebrew” gymnasium, rather than a traditional Sephardi school, then studied Hebrew literature and philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He currently lives in Haifa and since 1972 has taught literature at Haifa University. Yehoshua published his first short-story collection (Death of the Old Man) in 1962 and his first novel (The Lover) in 1977. The novel is the genre for which he would become best known, though Yehoshua has also written numerous essays and plays. His fourth novel, the complex Mr. Mani, purports to be a Sephardi counternarrative to mainstream Jewish history. Showing an affinity with the experiments in perspective and narrative in works by the American novelist William Faulkner, Mr. Mani revisits key moments in recent Jewish history, refracting them through the specific viewpoints of a diverse ensemble of narrators.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Historically significant times and places

Mr. Mani is broken up into five sections, each comprised of a conversation between two (in the last section three) characters. However, in each section, only one character’s speech is presented, while that of the other character or characters is “missing.” Presented in reverse chronological order, each of the conversations occurs during a year of great importance in the history of Israel, Zionism, and modern nationalism in general:

  • 1982 (Lebanon War)
  • 1944 (World War II and the Holocaust)
  • 1918 (end of World War I; period soon after the Balfour Declaration promises British support for the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine)
  • 1897 (First Zionist Congress)
  • 1848 (eruption of nationalist movements in Europe)

Though Jerusalem stands at the geographic and metaphoric center of the novel, numerous other locations, including Beirut, Athens, Crete, and Poland, serve as the setting for either a conversation or the action it reports. In all these places, the conversations center on the same family of Sephardi Jews, a branch of Jewry usually neglected in accounts of modern Jewish history.

Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewry

Sephardi and Ashkenazi are the two basic ethnic categories of world Jewry. In light of each term’s historical origin, their modern application is at best only partially accurate. Members of the Sephardi (literally, “Spanish”) branch are descendants of Jews who lived in Spain or Portugal prior to the expulsion of 1492. After the expulsion, these Jews scattered throughout North Africa, southeastern Europe (from modern-day Italy to Turkey), and the Levant, or eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The term Sephardi is often used erroneously for all Jews of non-Ashkenazi origin, including Mizrachi (literally, “Eastern”) Jews, who inhabited the areas of Iraq, Syria, and Yemen for hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years.

References to Ashkenazi Jewry as the name for Jews living in Germany with distinct, non-Sephardi customs first emerged in the fourteenth century, though the term harks back to Noah’s great-grandson, the biblical figure known as Ashkenaz (Genesis 10:3). Over time Ashkenazi has come to denote all Jews living in or descended from Jews in northwestern and eastern Europe (e.g. France, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, etc.). The Sephardim and Ashkenazim agree on the basic tenets of Judaism, but differ in customs and interpretation of matters ranging from the layout of synagogues to dietary rules during the Passover holiday.

At least 80,000 Jews lived in Spain at the end of the medieval era (c. 1000 to 1492). A remarkably vigorous culture, they produced such important figures as the poet Judah Halevi and the philosopher Moses Maimonides (see the Diwan of Judah Halevi , also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times).Their significance began to decrease in the seventeenth century, however, as the population of Ashkenazi Jewry grew. Prior to the Holocaust, the Ashkenazim represented 90 percent of the more than 16 million Jews worldwide. There has since been a shift in proportions. Today Sephardi Jewry numbers 2 million, or about 15 percent of the over 14 million Jews.

Sephardim and Ashkenazim in Israel

The modern Zionist project—that is, the modern project to re-establish a homeland for the Jews in Palestine—was an overwhelmingly Ashkenazi enterprise. Its first ideologues (Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha` am, and others) and pre-state leadership (David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann), not to mention the thousands who immigrated to the Jewish settlements in Palestine, were predominately Ashkenazi Jews. Indeed, modern Zionism emerged as a solution to the particular problems (anti-Semitism, above all) plaguing Ashkenazi Jewry. The Sephardim of North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean suffered instances of discrimination and persecution too. But there, among Muslim societies, the Jews lived as a relatively protected, if second-class, community. The rise of Arab nationalism in the Middle East, in part a response to Zionism’s success in Palestine, and the establishment of Israel in 1948, made Jewish life in Arab and Muslim countries untenable.

In the years immediately following 1948, hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries were resettled in the new state of Israel. While many of these Jews were indeed Sephardim, a large portion were neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, but rather Mizrachi Jews from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other nearby countries. These new Sephardi and Mizrachi immigrants (a distinction largely ignored) were socialized in an ideology and view of Jewish history largely foreign to them, which included a wholesale rejection of Jewish life in the diaspora. All governmental institutions were controlled by Ashkenazi Jews, a circumstance that, in combination with the limited state resources available for absorbing these immigrants, led to the creation of a large Sephardi underclass in Israel.

The Lebanon War

On June 6, 1982, the Israeli army invaded Lebanon. For years the Israel-Lebanon border had played host to skirmishes and attacks from both directions. Lebanon’s devastating civil war in the mid-1970s worked to the advantage of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), self-designated representative of dispossessed Palestinian Arabs wherever they might live. The war allowed the PLO to strengthen and expand its control of Palestinian refugee camps and other regions in southern Lebanon. Israel’s government, led by Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, characterized the invasion as “Peace for the Galilee [Northern Israel].” But the Israeli offensive continued well beyond the border zone, all the way to the Lebanese capital of Beirut, the power base of the PLO leadership. Sharon planned to destroy the PLO as a force in Lebanon and to help establish a Lebanese government to Israel’s liking. Ultimately the PLO leadership left Lebanon for Tunisia. Thus, the Israeli invasion may have achieved its immediate purpose, but it was costly on multiple counts. Israel’s occupation of Southern Lebanon would last nearly 20 years, prompting some to call this “Israel’s Vietnam” and leading to significant Israeli casualties. Civilian casualties in Lebanon were considerable too, highlighted by the infamous massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps—perpetrated by Israel’s Phalangist allies with Israeli knowledge and noninterference (Sachar, p. 914). The 1982 war, in stark contrast to the Israeli view of prior wars, was an optional, offensive action rather than a mandatory, defensive one. In these ways, it has come to mark a turning point in Israeli history, one paralleled by ideological malaise throughout much of the country.

Germans in Crete during World War II

Located 60 miles off the coast of Greece, the island of Crete, where part of Mr. Mani takes place, has played host to some key moments in human history. Germany’s Nazi army conquered Crete in May 1941, then proceeded to occupy the island until late 1944. Near the end of the war, when its defeat appeared imminent, Germany intensified its efforts to liquidate all Jews under its control, however few in number and far from Germany. In keeping with this policy of genocide, in June 1944, 260 Jews were deported by boat from Crete to the European mainland to be sent to the death camps. But they met their end before this plan could be executed. All aboard were killed when the boat was sunk by an unknowing British warplane.

The Jews had been deported from an island occupied by renowned societies. In ancient times, the Minoans (3000-1100 b.c.e.), whose civilization predates that of ancient Greece, dominated the region, thanks in large measure to their knowledge of metals (copper and then bronze). Theirs was the first so-called high civilization in the area, distinguished for its sophisticated cities and palaces, its extensive trade networks, and its artistic achievements. After the Minoans came the Mycenaeans (c. 1580-1120 b.c.e.), whose ruins still stand and whose history forms the basis of the Greek epics attributed to Homer. Mr. Mani treats Crete, perceived through the eyes of the German officer Egon Brunner, as the cradle of European culture. By setting part of his novel here, Yehoshua reaches before even the Greeks, who are typically invoked as the origin of European culture, to pre-classical times.

During the nineteenth century, European romantic and nationalist myths—including the German ideology of Volk——drew heavily on ancient cultures to “provide a foundation for the emergence of European culture” (Golomb Hoffman, p. 250). In fact, various national mythologies positioned the modern nation as the “true” inheritor of a particular ancient culture. These national ideologies simultaneously drew upon new forms of (pseudo) scientific thinking in order to make claims about racial purity and immutable, essential national identities, placing great importance on the discovery of archaeological ruins from ancient civilizations—such as the remnants of Minoan-Mycenaean palaces uncovered by Arthur Evans at the turn of the twentieth century.

Yehoshua debunks such claims to purity in Mr. Mani, a point of particular poignancy in light of the Sephardi heritage featured in the novel. As noted, Sephardi society emanated from medieval Spain, whose larger population was preoccupied with limpieza de sangre (“purity of blood”), a concern that many of the Sephardim seem to have imbibed. “In a variety of ways,” observes literary scholar Arnold Band, “the novel is… a devastating critique of the notion of Sephardic family purity,” which serves as an example of “destructive modern nationalism” (Band, p. 241).

The Balfour Declaration and Palestine at the end of World War I

The land that includes modern-day Israel and the Palestinian territories was controlled by the Ottoman Empire for four centuries prior to World War I. During this war, most of the empire’s vast territorial holdings were lost to other colonial powers, primarily to the French and British. The British army conquered Palestine in 1917. Contact had already been established by the two colonial powers with Arab leaders throughout the Middle East, who sought promises and pledges in support of their autonomy. Simultaneously the Zionist leadership approached the British in hopes of getting their backing for its own national project in Palestine. Led by Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist movement scored an enormous diplomatic victory when it persuaded the British to issue the Balfour Declaration in November 1917. The declaration stated that the British government favors “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” (Smith, p. 54). In 1922 the League of Nations awarded Britain a mandate to govern Palestine, which would remain in effect for the next 26 years.

At the outset, the League charged the British to “’Use their best endeavors to facilitate’ Jewish immigration” in the interest of securing a national home here (Sachar, p. 128). While the ultimate future of British Mandate Palestine would remain uncertain up to and through the United Nation’s vote to partition it between the Arabs and the Jews in 1947, for Western nations, the Balfour Declaration granted the Zionist project a new degree of legitimacy. The political value of this legitimacy was only reinforced when Britain was awarded the mandate in 1922, providing the Zionists with diplomatic leverage throughout the interwar period. From the point of view of the Arabs in Palestine, however, the British government had no right to determine its fate. They saw the Balfour Declaration (and for that matter British rule in their region) as an imposition of European imperial power on the indigenous population and thus as illegitimate.

Jewish nationalism, in the form of modern political Zionism, would clash directly with Arab nationalism in general and Palestinian nationalism in particular. Before the end of World War I, a pan-Arab nationalism had surfaced, one with hopes of independence for the Arab peoples throughout the Middle East, including Palestine. There were nearly 700,000 Arab inhabitants in Palestine by the end of the war, scattered through numerous villages and a few cities, such as Jaffa, Haifa, and Jerusalem. In contrast, there were approximately 60,000 Jews. It is therefore hardly surprising that the Balfour Declaration of 1917 met with Arab nationalist opposition. Initially much of this opposition came from Arab leaders outside Palestine, in particular from Sharif Husayn of Mecca, the main figure in the emerging pan-Arab nationalist movement. The years 1917 to 1922, however, saw strong opposition from journalists, lawyers, and other Palestinian Arabs too. Eventually the distinct nationalist movements tied to the Arab peoples of today (Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians) would grow out of this larger pan-Arab nationalism. At the end of World War I, however, Palestinian nationalism was not yet a mass movement. A distinct Palestinian identity was still taking shape.

The First Zionist Congress

Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, created the institution of the Zionist Congress in order to fashion a coherent political movement. This first congress was held in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. Delegates from 15 countries attended the congress; a landmark convocation, it produced the “Basel Program,” which officially declared it the goal of Zionism to establish a “home” for the Jewish people in the land of Palestine (Morris, p. 23). To this end, the congress encouraged the resettlement of Jewish workers and artisans there and founded the World Zionist Organization. This first convocation was viewed as highly significant for non-Jews as well as Jews. Held the next year, in 1898, also in Basel, a Second Zionist Congress resolved through colonization and industrialization to improve the condition of the Yishuv—the Jewish community in Palestine. The next year, 1899, saw the convocation of a Third Zionist Congress, yet again in Basel. Herzl, despite setbacks, remained fixed on attaining a charter for a Jewish settlement in Palestine from its then Turkish overlords. At this time actual Zionist settlement in Palestine was just beginning. By 1903, the end of the first aliyah, or wave of Jewish immigration, the new Yishuv (the collection of Zionist communities in Palestine) contained 10,000 Jews, living mostly in recently founded settlements on 90,000 acres (purchased by the Jewish National Fund, which the Zionists had established to buy land in Palestine). The effort to revive Hebrew as a spoken language was underway at the time too. By the eve of World War I, despite economic stagnation, which set in soon after the turn of the century, the Jewish population in Palestine had risen more than five-fold, with comparable growth of the settlements.

Spring of Nations

Yehoshua ends his novel in 1848, a pivotal year that saw one nationalist movement after another erupt in Europe. A revolution in Paris in early 1848 led to the proclamation of a republican government in France, which sparked uprisings throughout Europe—in Berlin, in Milan, in Vienna, and in other parts of the Austrian Empire. The continent was reordering itself along popular national rather than imperial and religious lines. Middle-class doctors and lawyers called for greater political rights, industrial workers demanded a political voice, and peasants agitated for the abolition of feudal-style relationships with landowners. In France, the bourgeoisie, whose members patched together a provisional post-revolutionary government, committed itself to a bold new approach in European government—universal manhood suffrage. Responding in droves, peasants and villagers, who made up a large share of the 9.5 million new voters, for the first time cast their ballots, in the end to little short-term avail. This particular French republic would in four brief years fail, as would the revolutions mounted elsewhere in Europe. In the long run, however, they prompted irrevocable change. From 1848 onward, “the modern phenomena of mass politics began to emerge” (Wright, p. 129). The rash of 1848 revolutions drew mass populations into the governing of a nation, or, in cases like Germany, led to their unification into a newly created nation. Lumping together the upheavals, history dubs them the “Spring of Nations,” designating 1848 to be the year modern nationalism first emerged in earnest across Europe.

In Mr. Mani, Yehoshua retraces the emergence of modern nationalism, in particular Zionism, and its effect on the Middle East and the Jerusalem Sephardim. His choice of 1848 as the temporal point of departure is apt in view of the year’s nationalist revolutions. At its foundation, Mr. Mani appears to question the role of nationalism in the formation of Israel and even the modern Middle East.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Mr. Mani consists of five sections or “conversations.” In each conversation a new speaker describes his or her encounter with a different member of the Mani family (in the fifth section a Mani himself takes on the role of speaker). The responses of the speaker’s conversational partner are omitted, but his or her identity is known to the reader and clearly influences how the speaker communicates. In essence, every section contains two intertwined stories: the story related by the speaker (the “dialogue” is in fact closer to a monologue) and the interaction of speaker and addressee during the telling of the story. Information about both participants is provided in biographical content that bounds the conversation. An otherwise absent editor supplies the information in a neutral, authoritative tone.

The first conversation takes place in 1982 in Kibbutz Masha’abei Sadeh in Israel. The participants are Hagar Shiloh and her mother, Yael. Hagar describes her three-day-long encounter with Judge Gavriel Mani, the father of her boyfriend, Efrayim Mani, a soldier stationed in Lebanon. Convinced that she is pregnant with Efrayim’s baby, Hagar travels from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in order to deliver a message from Efrayim to his father: Efrayim will not be able to attend his paternal grandmother’s unveiling. In Gavriel’s Jerusalem apartment she discovers a noose and concludes that he is planning to commit suicide. Hagar resolutely remains in Jerusalem, despite Gavriel’s efforts to send her back to Tel Aviv, in order to “save” him from himself.

Over the next few days, Hagar travels around Jerusalem, partially in pursuit of Gavriel, from his courthouse, to a Sephardi cemetery, to an old hospital. On the third day, when it appears to Hagar that Gavriel is no longer a threat to himself, she leaves Jerusalem and on a whim travels to her mother’s kibbutz rather than returning directly to Tel Aviv. There ensues this first conversation. Throughout her telling, Hagar must resist her mother’s psychological theorizing, in particular Yael’s conviction that Hagar was attracted to Gavriel as a surrogate father-figure, her own father having been killed in the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab nations. In the “biographical supplement” that follows the conversation, the reader learns that Hagar was indeed


The reverse chronological order or construction of Yehoshua’s novel suggests two alternate models for understanding the past: archaeology and psychoanalysis, The reverse chronology of the narrative mirrors the perception of time in the two fields, in both, time is not viewed linearly from the past to the present. Rather it is viewed from the present to the past, with an emphasis on the simultaneity of the past in the present In archaeology, this is manifested in ruins; In psychoanalysis, by a host of present memories and even neurotic symptoms based on past experience. Yehoshua additionally encourages the reader to consider the relevance of archaeological and psychoanalytic models in ways other than the novel’s backward progression: by including an extended treatment of archaeology in the second conversation; by constructing each conversation as a lopsided exchange between two figures, much like a psychoanalytic session; by finally revealing or unearthing in the confession of the final conversation a possible original cause for the family’s problems—a father’s murder of his son. Though deeply historical, Mr. Mani might in these ways, and in its focus on the Sephardi experience, which falls outside traditional Jewish historiography, be considered an “antihistorical” novel (Band, p. 236).

not pregnant at the time, though she became so soon after Efrayim’s return from Lebanon. He and Hagar do not marry, and he for the most part avoids his paternal responsibilities. In contrast, Gavriel develops a close relationship with his grandson, and through him with Hagar’s mother. This section ends some five years later, with a description of Gavriel’s car being struck by a rock as he drives through the Palestinian city of Hebron on the way to Yael’s kibbutz.

The second conversation takes place in German-occupied Crete in 1944 between a German soldier, Egon Brunner, and his non-biological grandmother, Andrea Sauchon. Beginning with a description of the German aerial invasion of Crete in 1941, Egon relates his experiences on the island. He encounters Yosef Mani and his son, Efrayim, and comes into contact with ancient Minoan ruins. In his narration to “Grandmother,” Egon has fused the Manis and the Minoan into an elaborate theory that, he believes, offers a solution to the imminent disaster facing Germany. For Egon, this ancient civilization offers Germany a way out, a purifying return to origins capable of redeeming the nation from its present barbarism. In Efrayim Mani, Egon finds his theory oddly substantiated. Egon discovers that the Manis are Jews, but when confronted, Efrayim responds, “I was Jewish, but I am not anymore… I’ve canceled it” (Yehoshua, Mr. Mani, p. 123). From this, Egon happily concludes, “if that stubborn, beastly essence of Jewishness can cancel its own self, then there’s hope for us too” (Mr. Mani, p. 125). Egon spends much of the next two years closely monitoring Mani, in order to confirm that he has not cancelled the cancellation (Mr. Mani, p. 129). As the war turns against the Germans, the Jews of Crete are rounded up for deportation. Egon elects not to arrest the self-cancelled, once-Jewish Mani, only to arrest him later for helping other Jews (that is, his wife and son) escape. Mani dies aboard a ship destined for the death camps as it sinks into the Mediterranean.

The third conversation is set in Jerusalem in 1918, soon after the British capture Palestine. The speaker is Ivor Horowitz, a British Jew and military advocate. The occasion for his narration is a report to Colonel Michael Woodhouse, who will be the presiding judge at the treason trial of a Yosef Mani, whom the reader encountered in the second conversation. Yosef, who is considered British since his parents were British subjects, is being tried for providing military plans to the enemy. Ivor will serve as prosecutor. In his report, he details Yosefs strange, multilayered identity: Yosef is a polyglot and self-pronounced “homo politicus” who shuttles effortlessly between and feels at home in the multiple cultures and languages of Jerusalem. When his language skills are discovered, Yosef is enlisted as an interpreter for the British army. He soon discovers Britain’s Balfour Declaration, endorsing the Jewish nationalist project in Palestine, and is “bowled over” by it (Mr. Mani, p. 184). In response—and possibly out of concern for the Arab communities with which he once identified—Yosef repeatedly steals British war plans and delivers them to the enemy in order to have an audience with the local Arab population. Here he takes it upon himself to implore the Arabs to

Get ye an identity… before it is too late! All over the world people now have identities, and we Jews are on our way, and you had better have an identity or else!

(Mr. Mani, p. 190)

Eventually Yosef Mani gets caught, and this leads to his trial for treason. Throughout his part of the conversation, the Jewish military man, Ivor, is forced to demonstrate his allegiance with British (as opposed to Jewish) interests. He hopes at the same time to avoid asking for the death penalty, as the law dictates. In the end, Woodhouse suggests deporting Yosef to Crete, to which Ivor happily agrees.

The fourth conversation, between Dr. Efrayim Shapiro and his father, Sholom Shapiro, takes place late one night in 1897 in Jelleny-Szad, Poland (a few miles from what would become the Auschwitz concentration camp). Efrayim and his sister, Linka, have just returned from a trip to the Third Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. At the congress, they encounter the Sephardi doctor Moshe Mani, a commanding, charismatic figure, who becomes enamored with Linka and convinces the brother and sister to return with him to Jerusalem. There he introduces them to Mani’s birthing clinic, which treats women of all backgrounds and nationalities. Linka and Mani engage in a full-fledged affair, until pfrayim takes it upon himself to return to Poland with his sister. Mani, on his own initiative, accompanies the siblings on the first few legs of this long journey, all the way to a train station in Beirut, Lebanon. A moment after a reluctant farewell, Efrayim and Linka watch in horror as Mani throws himself in front of an oncoming train:

Mani had reached the last car by now. He let his overcoat drop to the platform—the thought struck me that he did not want to bloody it—and then—with a gentle movement—lowered himself onto the tracks. A Turkish soldier started to shout at him. But Mani just turned away his face, which—in the reddish light that drifted in from the sea—looked hard and vanquished, and resumed walking along the tracks, wagging a reproving finger at the black locomotive that appeared around the bend as if it were a child home late from school. The locomotive tore him apart instantly, like a sword stroke.

(Mr. Mani, pp. 284–285)

In the process of Efrayim’s long narrative he searches for clues that might explain Mani’s suicide, a trying task made more difficult by his belief that his own father is not listening and may even have fallen asleep. In the biographical supplement, the reader learns that Linka marries a Catholic and converts. Despite this, both she and her children, along with Efrayim, are killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Set in Athens in 1848, the fifth conversation departs in many ways from the previous ones. Unlike the others, this conversation is narrated by a member of the Mani family, Avraham Mani. It furthermore has him address not just one but two conversation partners. Mani speaks to both his old teacher, Rabbi Shabbetai Hananiah Had-dayah, and the rabbi’s much younger wife, Flora Molkho-Haddayah. Having recently suffered a debilitating stroke and no longer able to speak, the rabbi requires the constant assistance of his wife. Avraham Mani has come to report to his one-time mentor the story of his journey to Jerusalem. In 1846 his son, Yosef, became the first Mani to travel to Jerusalem. This Yosef Mani (the grandfather of the Yosef Mani from the second and third conversations) goes to Jerusalem in order to escort his bride to Constantinople, but the two remain in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, they have no children. Avraham thus follows his son to Jerusalem, where he finds that his son spends his time among the local Arabs, who, Yosef is convinced, are simply “Jews who did not know that they were Jews” (Mr. Mani, p. 323). Avraham’s narration and the novel as a whole climax in his nightmarish description of his son’s moblike murder on the Temple Mount, in front of the Dome of the Rock. Avraham not only witnesses the murder, but may in fact have perpetrated it himself (the novel is famously ambiguous on this crucial point, though Yehoshua claims otherwise, as discussed below). Afterwards, Avraham stays in Jerusalem and sleeps with his daughter-in-law in order to continue the family line. Avraham has thus come to Athens to confess and seek judgment from his rabbi: can he take his own life as punishment for these acts? The rabbi, completely incapacitated, provides no answer.

The binding of Isaac

From among all the foun-dational moments in the Hebrew Bible, perhaps none has so preoccupied Jewish thought as the binding of Isaac or the akedah (Genesis 22). In this story, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a test of Abraham’s loyalty. Abraham follows God’s command, and only at the last possible instant, when Abraham has the knife in his hand, does one of God’s angels intervene and save Isaac. Abraham is rewarded by God for his loyalty, and is told: “because you have done this thing and have not held back your son, your only one, I will greatly bless you and will greatly multiply your seed, as the stars in the heavens and as the sand on the shore of the sea” (Genesis 22:16–17).

Though the Hebrew Bible is replete with scenes of violence, both potential and realized, few if any are so morally problematic. Simply put, what type of God orders his follower to murder his own son? The deeply troubling nature of this story is only compounded by its centrality to the biblical narrative. While the Hebrew Bible is the narrative of the Jews’ early history, this episode is unique in that it forms part of the original covenant between God and Abraham. For these reasons, the akedah has been the focus of endless interpretation, elaboration, and, at times, justification in Jewish literature, both religious and secular. The figure of Isaac as sacrifice has often been invoked as a metaphor to explain and to justify Jewish suffering. Before the founding of Israel, Jews in the Diaspora often spoke of Isaac as a model or archetype when discussing martyrdom or Kidush ha-Shem (sanctification of the Divine Name). This occurred even in the Holocaust, the Nazi attempt to exterminate European Jewry (in fact, holocaust is Latin for “burnt offering” or “sacrifice” and appears in the Latin translation of the akedah).Though modern Zionism rejected traditional Jewish martyrdom, the figure of Isaac has remained central in Israel too, echoing the seemingly endless chain of “sons” sacrificed in its wars.

A.B. Yehoshua views Mr. Mani as a response to the binding of Isaac and the role it has played in the Jewish imagination throughout history. The novel itself climaxes with a not-so-subtle re-enactment of the biblical episode: a man named Abraham kills his son on the Temple Mount, or Mount Moriah, the site of the original akedah.But as this summary indicates, Yehoshua’s version of the story differs from the original in one important way. In his own words, “that which in the bible story was merely a threatened sacrifice would be turned into an awesome reality” (Yehoshua, “Mr. Mani and the Akedah,” p. 64). To his mind, the akedah is “an appalling story” that is “morally insupportable for the believer in the objective existence of God and his providential supervision of humankind” (Yehoshua, “Mr. Mani and the Akedah,” pp. 61–62). He set out in his novel to respond forcefully to this episode once and for all: “I wanted to free myself from the myth by bringing it to full realization… I wanted to… present it in a credible realistic situation… and at the actual biblical site (Yehoshua, “Mr. Mani and the Akedah,” p. 61). Through a fulfillment of the threat of the akedah, he aimed to drain it of its appeal as a metaphor for the Jewish experience. He employed Mr. Mani as a corrective to the sort of blind loyalty at the center of the akedah, a type of loyalty that in the century and a half covered by the novel has “subjected humanity to its most horrendous atrocities” (Yehoshua, “Mr. Mani and the Akedah,” p. 62).

Yehoshua, Faulkner, and the relationship between narrative and identity

In interviews concerning his work, Yehoshua has long been open about the influence of the American writer William Faulkner on his writing. In particular, Yehoshua notes an attraction to Faulkner’s use of multiple narrating voices and interior monologues. Yehoshua comments:

Reality here [in Israel] is so diverse and there is no controlled center anymore. And if I really wanted to reflect the diverse reality of Israel in my novel, I had to take into account that there are different points of view. And this is the reason why the technique of Faulkner was so helpful.

(Yehoshua in Horn, p. 51)

Yehoshua’s first two novels, ha-Me’ahev (1977; The Lover, 1977) and Gerushim me’uharim (1982; A Late Divorce, 1984), are constructed in this Faulknerian manner; an ensemble of characters within the story takes turns narrating the action to illuminate the “diverse” Israeli reality by conveying it through their varied perspectives. In Mr. Mani Yehoshua takes the strategy one step further, turning his attention toward the narrators themselves to demonstrate the interdependent relationship between their narration and identity.

The narrators in Mr. Mani are not only subjective, biased observers, but each uses his or her narration as an opportunity to refashion his or her identity, or at least represent it in a very particular light. The third conversation (the first Yehoshua was to write) demonstrates this clearly. Ivor Horowitz uses his narration to assert his own identity as first and foremost British. From the opening of the conversation the reader senses the constraints under which Ivor speaks:

—Colonel, sir. Lieutenant Ivor Stephen Horowitz of the advocate-general’s corps, attached to the adjutant’s office of the 52nd division. I’m most grateful to you for finding the time to discuss with me this matter of—

—Horowitz, Colonel, with two “o’s.”

—British, of course. Born in Manchester, sir.

—1897, sir.

—Yes, sir.

—My father, sir, did not have the good fortune to be born in the United Kingdom, although he arrived in it as a very young lad. My mother, on the other hand—

—From Russia, sir. But as a very young child. What deucedly foul weather!

(Mr. Mani, pp. 149–50)

Ivor senses, and indeed has reason to believe, that the reception of his narrative depends on his addressee’s (i.e., Colonel Woodhouse’s) opinion of Ivor, in particular his qualifications, military and genealogical. Ivor presents the colonel with a narrative of his origins that stresses his British identity, meanwhile dismissing those elements of his family’s past that mark him as anything less than “purely” British. He repeats his mention of his father’s early arrival to the United Kingdom, while looking for an opportunity to switch to his other parent and stress his mother’s non-immigrant status. When the colonel remains interested in the non-British branches of Horowitz’s family tree, Ivor tries to divert his attention to the weather.

While Ivor uses the narrative as an opportunity to present a very particular version of his identity, to “remember” certain aspects of it while “forgetting” others, it is difficult to understand his motive. Does Ivor wish to be seen as primarily British, or is this only a function of his suspicion that Wood-house is an anti-Semite? Might Horowitz present a different identity were he speaking with a fellow Jew and not a fellow Englishman? Like each of the other speakers of the novel, Ivor speaks to a figure of greater authority (in the other conversations the narrators speak to a parent, grandparent, or teacher). The scene demonstrates that the situation of narration—which is rarely, if ever, neutral—often demands a particular type of narrative.

When Ivor introduces the figure of Yosef Mani, the relationship between narrative and identity grows only more complex. Yosef is a polyglot, educated in part in Beirut, and overall his identity is anything but fixed. This is seen most clearly in his layers of clothing. Yosef sheds one layer to reveal another—the removal of his peasant’s cloak reveals a western suit and tie. Capitalizing on his skills, he serves as an adept translator for the British forces in the region—his mastery of numerous languages signifies his ability to shuttle between different identities. The Balfour Declaration, establishing the possibility of a partition of Palestine along religious or national lines, is a blow to the multiethnic, even multinational Yosef. Despite being a Jew, Yosef fears for the indigenous Arab population, since through a shared language he identifies with them as well. As such, he takes it upon himself to give away British military secrets in order to gain access to the local Arab communities. The Arabs are implored to “get ye an identity” so as not to be swept over by tide of nationalism flowing through the region (Mr. Mani, p. 190).

Not surprisingly, Ivor’s narrative about Yosef tries to make sense of his treachery by identifying its origins. Ivor’s earlier presentation of his own origins suggests his interest in the subject as a way of simplifying matters. Origins and beginnings become the first step in an arbitrary process of creating meaning through narrative, in which one part of the past is suppressed in order to present another aspect as solely representative. Ivor says

It’s best to begin from the beginning. But just where is the beginning, sir, if you’ll allow me to reflect for a moment? Suppose we say on the twenty-eight of February.

(Mr. Mani, p. 156)

Ivor’s use of the conditional “suppose we say” betrays the arbitrary character of his narrative, a narrative that nevertheless comes to function as “reality,” a stand-in for the otherwise inaccessible past. As Faulkner demonstrated in novels such as The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!, the act of narration actively shapes the past, by forcing it to conform to an outside narrative framework constructed in the present. The “beginning” of Yosef Mani’s story only exists, in other words, thanks to the beginning that Ivor creates through his narration.

Particularly remarkable in Yehoshua’s treatment of these issues is the way his novel makes narrative central not just to individual identity, but to collective identity as well. Standing behind Ivor’s obsession with the beginning of Mani’s treachery is the larger matter of the origins of nationalism and national identity in the region. As a Jew born in Britain to an Englishwoman and a Russian immigrant, Ivor has a complicated identity that he tries to simplify by embracing his British and dismissing his Russian side. Likewise the absurdity of Yosef s command to the Arabs to “get ye an identity” suggests the inevitable arbitrariness of the national identity to be taken. Though Yosef is spared the death penalty, his degree of national hybridity cannot survive once the streamlining model of nationalism—with its arbitrary borders—enters the region. Ivor’s use of narrative to shape his own mixed identity suggests that the national collective’s effort to formulate its own identity may well involve a narrative of forgetting too. Indeed, Ernest Renan, one of the first scholars who attempted to clarify the elusive meaning of the modern nation and its reliance on history observed over a hundred years ago: “Forgetting… is a crucial factor in the creation of the nation” (Bhabha, p. 11).

Sources and literary context

Modern Hebrew fiction emerged among Askenazi Jewry in Europe in the late nineteenth century and over a hundred years later remains largely dominated by the more culturally prominent Ashkenazi in Israel. But a sizeable group of Sephardi and Mizrachi Hebrew writers have emerged in Israel as well. The best known among these—Sami Michael, Shimon Ballas, Eli Amir—have provided Israeli society with powerful counter-narratives to the standard Ashkenazi accounts of Israeli history and society. To some degree, Mr. Mani can be said to participate in this movement in Hebrew fiction. The novel, however, is perhaps best understood as a singular happening for several reasons. First, Yehoshua is not a recent immigrant but a sixth-generation Jerusalemite, who was already one of the best-known writers in Israel before the publication of Mr. Mani; also Yehoshua’s turn toward his Sephardi heritage at this juncture appears related to personal events as much as to any developments in Israeli society at large.

The composition of Mr. Mani took place intermittently over the course of almost ten years. Yehoshua wrote the third section in 1984–1985, but then left the project for two years to write a different novel, Five Seasons (in Hebrew, Molkho). Though Yehoshua himself claims that this last novel was a deliberate effort on his part to avoid collective, political questions, the critical establishment saw it otherwise. Five Seasons has come to be viewed as Yehoshua’s first “Sephardi” novel, one whose themes in many ways resemble those in Mr. Mani. In 1987 A. B. Yehoshua wrote an introduction to a posthumous collection of essays by his father, Yaakov Yehoshua. In contrast to the father’s sentimental, nostalgic recreations of his Jerusalem childhood, in his introduction, the son investigates the complex, if often repressed, nature of his own Sephardi identity. There is in the introduction a fusion of three themes: “Yehoshua’s relationship to his father, his attitude to his Sephardism, and the type of fiction he produces…. We… see in this essay of 1987 some of the same basic structures that shape Mar Mani, which was written about the same time” (Band, p. 235).


Portions of Mr. Mani were published in journals in 1986 and 1988, while a segment of one conversation was performed as a monologue in 1988. Thus primed for an unusual literary event, the critical establishment and general reading public made the novel a runaway bestseller and, in less than a year, the focus of no fewer than 30 scholarly articles. The best known of these articles, by the eminent literary scholar Dan Miron, explicitly echoed a sentiment found in much of the interpretative response to the novel: namely, that he was just scratching the surface of the novel’s complexity.

In the United States, Mr. Mani received similarly enthusiastic reviews from writers as notable as Cynthia Ozick and Alfred Kazin. A portion of the third conversation was published in The New Yorker to great interest, and the novel was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Struck by how ambitious and powerful a novel it is, the Nation acknowledged the work as a remarkable achievement; “The Nobel Prize,” its reviewer observed, “has been given for less” (Solotaroff, p. 826).

—Todd Hasak-Lowy

For More Information

Band, Arnold. “Mar Mani: The Archaeology of Self-Deception.” Prooftexts 12 (1992): 231–244.

Bhabha, Homi K., ed. NationandNarration.London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

Golomb Hoffman, Anne. “The Womb of Culture: Fictions of Identity and Their Undoing in Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani.” Prooftexts 12 (1992): 245–263.

Horn, Bernard. Facing the Fires: Conversations with A. B. Yehoshua.Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997.

Mintz, Alan. Translating Israel.Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2001.

Morris, Benny. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001.New York: Vintage, 2001.

Ruiz, Teofilo F. Spanish Society 1400–1600. Harlow, England: Pearson Education, 2001.

Sachar, Howard M. A History of Israel from the Rise of Zionism to Our Time.New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Smith, Charles D. Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.New York: St. Martin’s, 1996.

Solotaroff, Ted. Nation 254, no. 23 (15 June 1992): 826–29.

Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times.New York: W. W. Norton, 1987.

Yehoshua, A. B. Mr. Mani. Trans. Hillel Halkin. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1992.

——. “Mr. Mani and the Akedah.” Judaism (winter 2001): 61–65.