(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The author of ten previous works of fiction, including the novels The Lover (1978), A Late Divorce (1984), and Five Seasons (1989), Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua continues his interest in the ironic obsessions of his characters in Mr. Mani, in which he also focuses on a sense of home in a Jewish context. This is an interest related to the problematic aspects of Zionism he analyzes in his collection of essays, Between Right and Right (1981).

The structure of Mr. Mani is based on five “conversations” in which only one of two speakers is heard by the reader. In each case, this speaker has a tale to relate to the other concerning an important male character in a given generation of a Sephardic family, the Manis. The plot exposed by this structure, and the presentation of the conversations in reverse order (the most recent first, the first last), is circular—that is, each outcome reflects its predecessor, and each new outcome, in predating its predecessor, points to a future that already has been expressed.

Two factors seem to support the urgency of each tale. One is that the teller of the tale is a critical character in it, and the other is that the “Mr. Mani” that each tale features is the victim of an obsession. The only exception to this is the tale told by the only Gentile among the five speakers, the brutally insane German soldier/idealist, Egon Bruner, in the second “conversation.”

The speaker in the first “conversation” is Hagar Shiloh, a young student at Tel Aviv Unviersity. Convinced she is pregnant by Efrayim Mani, her lover, she travels to Jerusalem to visit his father, Gavriel, a judge. Not only does the Old City in Jerusalem confuse her, but she is forced to fool Mr. Mani into letting her into his apartment, where he seems prepared to hang himself. The rest of Hagar’s story pivots on her attempt to thwart his suicide.

This part of the novel has various happy outcomes that form a climax to the rest of it in advance. Hagar becomes intrigued with Jerusalem, which initiates her into the Mani ambience, into her role in its history; Hagar eventually becomes pregnant and gives birth to the next Mani in the line, Roni; and Gavriel Mani takes leave of his obsession with his mother’s death and leaves Jerusalem for long visits with his grandson and the widow Shiloh, Hagar’s mother.

Not so pleasant is the outcome of the second tale in the novel. The storyteller here, Egon Bruner, speaks in 1944 to his irascible stepmother, Andrea Sauchon. The irony of Egon’s obsession is that it is insanely foolish: He thinks that Germany has mythic roots in Cretan culture that will purify it of its savagery, and that Jews are corrupt insects but will become worthy humans if they renounce being Jewish, which, according to Bruner, is only a state of mind.

As a paratrooper in the invasion of Crete, Bruner finds shelter in the ruins of Knossos, where he takes Yosef Mani hostage. Mani is a tour guide there, and he almost immediately dies. Mani’s son Efrayim, his grandson Gavriel, and his son’s wife become part of Bruner’s obsession. He forces Efrayim Mani to cancel his Jewishness. Bruner, as a police officer, later arrests his friend Efrayim, not for being a Jew, but for helping unpurified Jews to elude capture.

Lieutenant Ivor Stephen Horowitz’s identity as a Jew in the third “conversation” in Mr. Mani means less to him than his identity as a British subject and as a lawyer on the general staff of Sir Edmund Allenby in Palestine in 1918. He tells his story to Colonel Michael Woodhouse, the presiding military judge in a case Horowitz has been assigned to prosecute in Jerusalem. The accused is Yosef Mani, the cosmopolitan tour guide of the previous tale, and his crime is spying for the Turks. What comes to light in Horowitz’s account, however, is Mani’s obsession not only for the British for whom he works but for Arabs as well. His intense political eclecticism has impelled him to warn Arabs of Zionism’s future power in Palestine. In order to do this, he acquires access to Turkish-held territory by stealing military documents from the British. The ironies apparent in this section of the novel include a Jew (Horowitz) prosecuting a Jew (Mani) for a treason unrelated to that for which a Jew might well condemn a Jew (supporting the Arabs), Mani’s obsession for a justice for a people other than his own, and Woodhouse’s sentence of exile for Mani, the cunning idealism of which unknowingly puts its victim and his family at the mercy of Germans in the future.

Related to Yosef Mani’s hostility to Jewish provincialism and to Ivor Horowitz’s implied embarrassment for his personal Jewishness is the off-handed attitude of Dr. Efrayim Shapiro, the narrator of the novel’s fourth tale, toward Judaism. It is ironic that his story arises from his being surrounded by Zionists and confronted with the despairing sexual passion of an aging Sephardic obstetrician, Moshe Mani. Shapiro tells the story of his contact with these obsessive people to his impatient and easily fatigued father, Sholom, in 1899.

The heart of Shapiro’s tale is Moshe Mani’s desire for the young...

(The entire section is 2125 words.)