Mr. Mani (Mar Maniy)

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MR. MANI (Mar Maniy)

Novel by A.B. Yehoshua, 1990

Obliquely yet still inescapably about the Shoah, A.B. Yehoshua's Mr. Mani (1992; Mar Maniy, 1990) ranks as perhaps the most important Israeli novel of the 1990s and one of the landmark fictions in any contemporary national literature. The novel is Yehoshua's fourth, and while continuous with the earlier three (together with short fiction of the 1960s and '70s) in its penchant for Faulknerian narrative technique and the grotesque, mythic underpinnings, and what Yehoshua has elsewhere called the "tuning" of identity both cultural and personal, Mr. Mani undertakes nothing less than an allegory of modern Jewish history, refracting five spatio-temporal crossroads—Athens, 1848; Kraków, 1899; Jerusalem, 1918; Crete, 1944; the Negev, 1982—through the thematic motif of the akedah, the binding of Isaac. Narrative fiction, as both the secularization of myth and the actualization of what remains merely latent or threatened within it, is thus made to draw a line inexorably connecting the site of Jewish national and religious origin—the Temple Mount in Jerusalem—to the site of modern Jewish catastrophe.

As the boldest sort of creative intervention into history, Mr. Mani could thus be said to pick up where Freud's essay in psychocultural analysis, Moses and Monotheism —a work Freud referred to as a "historical novel"—left off, having been completed in London exile following the Nazi occupation of Vienna in 1939. In the context of the dor hamedinah, the new wave of modern Hebrew fiction (the 1960s-80s), Mr. Mani represents Yehoshua's own most sophisticated revision of the Zionist narrative by proposing a kivun negdi, a counter-move or alternate possibility, in the physical past for each of five formative moments in modern Jewish history.

Beyond being "the anti-family anti-saga," in Gershon Shaked's useful designation for the novel, Mr. Mani is even more flagrantly anti-hegemonic in its narrative poetics. Moving backward at 20-50 year intervals, the plot trajectory—five generations in a Sephardic family whose scions nurture both a death wish and inchoate genealogical longing—is narrated through the device of half-dialogue, the interlocutor's half of each conversation being left out and to be inferred in the reading. The novel's diegesis is thus a mix of story and confessional self-accounting in what might be called polyphonic Hebrew—five different registers to simulate the modern Hebrew, German, English, Yiddish, and Ladino spoken in each linguistically specific conversation. But with the exception of Abraham Mani in the final conversation (the only Mani family member given narrating responsibilities), the other dialogic partners all recapitulate certain family dynamics of the Mani family (missing fathers, listeners that are their speakers' elders) without, however, actually belonging to it.

As plot-driven as any saga of Yoknapatawpha County (Yehoshua has never concealed his authorial debt to William Faulkner), Mr. Mani makes final sense of its closest-to-present events (the first conversation on the outbreak of Israel's incursion into Lebanon and on the eve of the intifada ) only with reference to those most historically remote (the fifth conversation that relates incidents taking place in Jerusalem in 1848, "the Springtime of Nations"). But at the same time, the text configures itself on a vertical axis, so that reading becomes archaeology—an intricate process of sifting through carefully sedimented details, layered artifacts of individual, collective, and mythic identity. For example, the second conversation takes place on the island of Crete because (1) Crete is the geographically closest that the Nazi occupation came to approaching Palestine; (2) in Greek mythology it is the womb in which Europe was reared, its cultural source and root; (3) it is the reputed origin of the p'lishtim who journeyed to Israel at about the same time the Israelites made their crossing from Egypt; and (4) as Knossos, it exemplifies civilization without religion. Cutting athwart all these layers is the transverse line of the Mani family, always proximate to historical movement or event but bypassed nevertheless. Thus, it is precisely their Sephardic cosmopolitanism that, while insulating them from Zionist idées fixes and benighted allegiances to European culture, keeps them stranded and askew.

Contrary progression, negative narration through omission, and not least historical and ideological roads not taken—such multiple decenterings explain the overarching thrust of Yehoshua's novel, which lays bare national choices confronting Israel in the present by narrating in reverse the immediate historical past. Yehoshua is himself a fifth-generation Sephardic Jerusalemite, a personal connection that in his own admission justifies both the centrality of Jerusalem in Mr. Mani and the formal device of its five-generation plot. Yet the need for the centripetal pull of Jerusalem as neither ruin nor endlessly deferred return but lived Jewish history and geography is structurally crucial to the novel, biography notwithstanding.

Similarly, in its consistently centrifugal shift to the historical margins, a subtly mongrelized Sephardi identity becomes a metaphor for an alternate or refocused national destiny (a Sephardi is thus held captive in Heraklion in 1944 rather than centrally positioned in 1948, the year of Israel's statehood). As Jews of the Ottoman Empire, the Manis are not world-historical figures. Rather in tangentially making contact with the British-mandated Palestine in 1918 and the rise of Arab and Jewish nationalism, or the Third Zionist Congress (1899), or the war in Lebanon, or the Nazi occupation of Crete, they are made inadvertently to interrogate what otherwise appears to be an inexorable historical process.

Yehoshua has spoken of the "cool clarity" vouchsafed him by his Sephardi identity; one might likewise understand the role played by the Manis in his text as a self-occlusion, like a fish-eye lens, through which we can more clearly apprehend what is at stake for a Jewish world leading up to and away from the Shoah and recrudescent national will. But perhaps, finally, Yehoshua's profoundest and most distinctly novelistic achievement in Mr. Mani is its ethics of form—dialogues that must be cocreated in the reading that thus suggest a way left permanently open, ballast of human voices over the determinative weight of plot.

—Adam Zachary Newton