FEW NOVELISTS CAN be relied on to take the temperature of the political climate as accurately as Israel's A.B. Yehoshua. His last novel, The Liberated Bride, celebrated the fluidity of personal and national borders between Jews and Arabs before the second intifada. 'The problem was not if peace will come, but when,' he says.
By the time The Liberated Bride was published in 2001, the acid rain of suicide terrorism was in full flow. 'We touched peace and now we are back to all this killing,' says Yehoshua.
As Israel slipped towards tumult, he felt a need to address the calcification of his nation's conscience. 'Society had become tough and tried to repress the death that was daily in our streets,' says Yehoshua, who last year was shortlisted for the inaugural Man Booker International Prize for an author's body of work. 'When a soldier is killed, there's a military funeral. There's a whole framework of values attached. But a person drinking coffee in a cafe - he was killed for what? You don't even have the sense of revenge, because the terrorist is killed. The society doesn't know how to mourn these deaths. Israeli society has become more stiff, more firm, more cruel. You lose your humanity by repression.'
His latest work, A Woman in Jerusalem, stems from this diagnosis. The novel fudges the line between grim satire and tragedy, as Yehoshua explores dark themes with a puckish touch.
Published in Hebrew as The Mission of the Human Resources Man, it opens with a migrant worker, killed in a terrorist attack, lying unidentified in a morgue. From her payslip it's discovered she's been absent from the bakery, where she worked as a cleaner, for several days. Her employers have made no effort to investigate her whereabouts.
When a muckraking journalist notifies the bakery of plans to publish an expose of its negligence, the company's unnamed human resources manager takes it on himself to return the corpse to her ex- Soviet homeland for burial. 'The novel is the process of coming to this daily affair,' says Yehoshua. 'About a body who is not important, a foreign worker, a cleaning woman - and going from this, little by little, to the emotions that finally catch this alienated, bureaucratic person, who comes to fall in love with this dead woman. I was trying to open the repression by going to the most anonymous, neglected death and squeezing from it some kind of profound emotion.'
When the body arrives home, the migrant worker's mother orders its return to Jerusalem for interment - a twist that contains the novel's political spine. 'She's a Christian, from the ex-Soviet Union, but Jerusalem also belongs to her. When Zionism started, the wise leaders were saying, 'We have to be very careful about Jerusalem, because the religious emotions and symbolism of Jerusalem are very important to all the world.' Jerusalem cannot be dominated only by the Jews. We will not be able to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without any solution to Jerusalem.'
Avraham 'Boolie' Yehoshua was born in 1936, two streets away from fellow novelist Amos Oz. Although a fifth-generation Jerusalemite, he left for the port city of Haifa after the Six Day War of 1967. 'I felt that Jerusalem was becoming too holy and extreme. The religious Jews were starting to keep Jerusalem for themselves.'
His wife of 45 years, Rivka, is a psychoanalyst, who is not above turning the tricks of her profession on her husband. 'I'm under analysis all the time. I'm afraid to tell her my dreams.' Yehoshua likens himself to a communal psychoanalyst: his aim is 'to get out the unconscious of the people and point out hidden truths'.
His father was an Arabist who spoke the language fluently and fostered in his son a belief that the Arabs were 'part of the family'. But Yehoshua senior wasn't dovish like his son. 'Because he'd read their stuff, he was saying to me, 'Never there will be peace with them'. Sometimes, I think he was right.'
The death of his father coincided with Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. These twin events precipitated his ambitious city portrait Mr Mani ('my great novel'). Drawing from his father's 12 published studies on Jerusalem, it consisted of five one-sided conversations, each narrated by a member of a family marooned in an epochal moment of Jewish history. 'For the first time, I felt I can't understand my fellow people. It was as if I discovered a member of my family had gone crazy. This was a kind of psychoanalytic process to go to the past to understand the present.'
As an emerging voice in the Israeli intelligentsia, Yehoshua avoided writing about his Sephardic (or Middle Eastern) origins. 'When the majority of newcomers were coming from other countries, it was easy for them because all their background was left in the diaspora. My marks of identity were here, so there was an effort to detach myself from the ethnic side.'
His books might distil the despair of contemporary Israel - its idealism dried up and replaced by cynicism - but Yehoshua's Zionist fever has lost none of its heat. It's the borderlessness of the Jewish people, and the resulting vagueness in their identity, that Yehoshua holds to be the cause of their historic persecution. 'Because there's something unclear in their identity, the anti-Semite can easily project his problems, his fantasies on the Jew. The Jew is like a text with a lot of gaps. As a Zionist, I know our purpose is to be among ourselves and not to wander again in the world. The diaspora Jews have to know that the structure of their identity invites anti-Semitism. They need to decide themselves if the price is too high.'
His persistent calls for the dismantling of the settlements in the occupied territories derives from this principle. 'Because we wanted to grab a bit of territory from the Palestinians, Israel betrayed the most sacred rule of Zionism - we broke our borders.'
Other leading Israeli authors, Aharon Appelfeld and Amos Oz, have recently published memoirs. But Yehoshua, touching 70, isn't contemplating an autobiography. National, rather than personal traumas are his fuel. 'Writing memoir is based around a trauma. For Appelfeld, it was the holocaust; for Oz, the suicide of his mother. There were no major events in my life. I don't have a nucleus of a trauma that can nourish an autobiography.'
A Woman in Jerusalem (Halban, $195)