Not of this Time, not of this Place (Lo Meakhshav, Lo Mikan)

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NOT OF THIS TIME, NOT OF THIS PLACE (Lo meakhshav, lo mikan)

Novel by Yehuda Amichai, 1963

Yehuda Amichai's only novel was originally published in Hebrew as Lo me-akhshav, lo mikan in 1963 and in English translation as Not of This Time, Not of This Place in 1968. Unique to the novel is its preoccupation with the author's German roots and with the Holocaust, a fact that has led many to observe that these were ghosts exorcized and laid to rest in the work. It is not the novel of a survivor, nor does it focus on the Holocaust as a Jewish national trauma. The novel describes "the summer of Joel" (Yoel in Hebrew), a 40ish married man and an archeologist who suffers from the disenchantment all too common among a generation of protagonists in Israeli literature of the 1950s and 1960s. But while the diagnosis is typical, the remedy is highly untraditional. The novel hinges upon a bold structural experiment. In an innocuous conversation in the first chapter Mina, a schizophrenic woman, proposes to Joel that he resolve his midlife crisis in one of two ways: he can have a love affair, or he can return to Germany to visit "Weinburg," the city he fled just prior to his bar mitzvah. Joel does both. In alternating chapters two discrete plots unfold detailing these two illicit encounters. One, narrated in the third person, describes Joel's adulterous love affair with Patricia/Patrice, a non-Jewish American doctor, in Jerusalem; the second, a first-person account, takes him back to Weinburg to search for the slowly vanishing traces of his childhood.

How one understands the significance of Not of This Time, Not of This Place as a Holocaust novel depends in part upon how one interprets the fact that the novel is also a love story. In an 1982 interview with Esther Fuchs, Amichai explained, "I loved the girl in Germany, during my childhood, and I loved the American girl I met in Jerusalem … I wanted to be in both places with both girls at the same time." Yet beyond the double love story there is much in the novel to validate Mina's schizophrenic logic, to wit, that the two dramatically different plots are at bottom one. Both are tales of flight, betrayal, and ultimately self-discovery; there are numerous crossovers in motif and character; and they complement and interpret each other in myriad ways. For example, in Jerusalem, Joel regresses and becomes diverted from his archeological career. Yet in Germany he digs around for all kinds of evidence. He discovers a wide cast of characters, Germans and Jews, survivors and expatriate Israelis, children and elderly relatives, and he describes in great detail the topography of the city and the often grotesque ways in which an economically booming Germany has attempted to overlay the past.

The central focus of the Germany plot, however, is intensely personal; it details Joel's quest to retrieve the traces of his beloved Ruth, "who burned." Although there is much talk of vengeance, Joel is no avenger. His sword is "made of wax," and Ruth's face is his "eternal light," lending comfort rather than inciting rage. Ruth, a teenage girl and amputee, is the novel's single tragic figure; she is innocence, courage, pure loss embodied. As Joel pieces together her story, the result is nothing short of an elegy. Details from her life and death accrue gradually: her bed was covered with broken glass during Kristallnacht ; the two argued as young children; she wrote him impeccable letters once he had left. The path to Ruth is not straightforward, for the nun who tended her has taken a vow of silence and is mute. Only later on does the nun send Joel a snapshot of Ruth taken on the day of her deportation: "Her eyes looked straight forward, clear and proud and courageous. The woolen scarf around her neck was carefully and neatly arranged, as was her custom … On her chest was a small sign with her number and the number of her transport … The small sign given to the deportees was already punched in two places. 'Each deportee must provide his own string,' the instructions read." Passages such as these form the novel's most poignant moments.

Yet even the quest for Ruth is not sacrosanct. Ruth is subject to Joel's innate forgetfulness, to his tendency to leave even important matters to chance. At one point Joel goes so far as to track down what he imagines to be, and what cannot be, Ruth's artificial leg. But he inadvertently misplaces the leg, then puts an ad in the newspaper to locate it. The finding and losing of Ruth's leg encapsulate the novel's irreverent mood. In a similar vein an aging survivor gives Joel a comb that belonged to the daughter who died in her arms, but Joel gives the comb to Patricia, whom, in the Germany novel, he encounters only once, in the Orly airport, just before he flies home. The transaction is not exactly an act of commemoration; he reports that "there wasn't time to tell her its history." Earlier Joel discovers the box of Rabbi Mannheim's sermons at a construction site. (Rabbi Mannheim, his childhood rabbi and the father of Ruth, survived the war and figures in the Jerusalem plot.) Yet the box opens up, and the pages fly away. They are not exactly lost, however, for Joel later purchases a bag of cherries and notices that the paper, stained with cherry juice, "bore one of Dr. Mannheim's sermons," and, in fact, "it is [Joel's] Bar Mitzvah speech the Rabbi had prepared and never given." The sermon is retained, only to fly again out of Joel's briefcase.

—Abigail Gillman