A marriage dipped in cold, what the hell is holding them together?

Israeli literature deals with complex issues. Often, it produces characters that are quite remote with each other, even if they are married to each other. Yet, despite their loneliness, they share a strong bond that only shows up when their loved ones are threatened.

Undisputed masters of this ‘marital loneliness’ are Amos Oz, AB Yehoshua and David Grossman, but it is no exaggeration to include Zeruya Shalev (1959) among them. Like these three literary masters, she also cleverly mixes family and marriage dramas with the general problems of the divided Israeli society.

Her new novel, translated by Ruben Verhasselt Lot is set against the backdrop of the hidden past of two Jewish freedom fighters. In their twenties, newlyweds, they were part of a right-wing terrorist organization that carried out attacks on British rulers in obligatory Palestine in the years leading up to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. After a dramatic event, a year after their marriage, they broke up up. They never saw each other again.

One of them is Menachem Rubin, who years later becomes a famous brain specialist. At the beginning of the novel, he is dying, seventy years after that divorce, remarried and the father of two daughters. In a delirium, he suddenly calls the youngest of them, nearly 50-year-old Atara, by the name of his first wife, Rachel. He has never talked about her with his family. Only by chance did Atara find out about her existence.

At the very last moment of death, Menachem claims to have loved Rachel only now. He also asks ‘her’ for forgiveness and claims to have dug their graves with his own hands. Their love, however short-lived it must have been intense, one thinks in such dramatic words.

After Menachem’s funeral, Atara hires a detective to track down Rachel. She learns from her that she is named after a young woman who caused her divorce from Menachem. With this knowledge in her pocket, Atara believes she can finally explain why her father has always withheld his love from her: out of guilt over what happened seventy years earlier.

abuse of power

In return, the encounter with Atara confronts Rachel with her repressed past. After her divorce, she remarried to another friend, who has since passed away. One of their two sons has become ultra-Orthodox, undermining her Zionist ideals. In any case, she is disappointed with what has become of the Zionist ideal. In her view, Israel today is a state full of corruption and abuse of power.

Anyone who thinks this tells the story is wrong. For Shalev, his novel provides an unexpected turn after less than a hundred pages, which transfers the drama of Menachem’s undiscovered past to the other plane. She now focuses on the marriage between Atara and her husband Alex, a sociology professor ten years older than her. Alex is unhappy with their relationship, which has been thrown into the cold by “arguing about who was right and who was wrong and who said what”. “You’ve lost interest in sex anyway, so I don’t have to wait for anything,” he says cynically as he goes to bed before his wife. He is also annoyed that she is suddenly so obsessed with her father’s hidden past. Why the hell should she go to that Rachel? Why would you take old cows out of the ditch?

Also read: angling for love

To keep their marriage going, Atara and Alex went to couples therapy. This has led the therapist to conclude that Atara’s pain tolerance is far too high, causing her to realize far too late that someone is hurting her. Immediately you think of the armor she has put on to protect herself from the comments of her unloving, aggressive father, who always found her spoiled, ungrateful and demanding.

From Alex she wants ‘warmth, softness, tenderness and generosity’. And the only way she can get it from him is by having sex with him. To get one, she has to do the other. It’s ‘the round frying pan’ of their relationship. “One wants less, the other more, as long as the pie stays whole.” With those words, Shalev portrays the typical combination of loneliness and solidarity.

longed for

One constantly wonders what binds the love-hungry Atara and the cynical Alex. Both have been married before and have children from previous relationships. Their partners at the time were unfaithful to each other, which they still do not regret, because that should just be the case. But it is often unclear to you what they still have with each other after twenty-five years.

That changes when Alex suddenly becomes ill and Atara, who visits Rachel again, downplays it. From that moment on, the novel picks up speed. As if Atara, now that she knows what happened between Rachel and her father, finds herself in a maelstrom of emotion, from anger to guilt, that forms the core of Shalev’s novel. For that which until then has always kept Atara out of itself, turns on her by an unexpected turn and overthrows her. When she realizes this, she also discovers why she ran away from her first husband, the sweet Doron. “She had had too much anger in her, too much hatred.”

A key role in this exciting novel is played by Eden, son of Atara and Alex, who serves as a commando soldier in the Israeli army and has experienced the most horrible things. Disillusioned with his work, he has retired to his room in the parental home. On the Internet, he reads obsessive articles about suicide. When Shalev gently shares his story with you, essential threads from the past suddenly come together. In their inability to cope with life, old Menachem Rubin and his grandson Eden turn out to be a little different. Powerlessness and guilt are then even more strongly connected than before. In addition, they determine the fate of everyone. And that’s exactly what Shalev seems to be all about.

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