(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Efraim Nisan-“Fima”-is a fifty-four-year-old luftmensch whose dreams exceed his accomplishments. Working as a receptionist in a gynecology clinic in Jerusalem, Fima has never fulfilled the promise that his talents seemed to everyone to manifest. Forever taking stock of where he stands, he notes:

In the course of his life he had had several love affairs, several ideas, wrote a book of poems that aroused some expectations, thought about the purpose of the universe and where the country had lost its way, spun a detailed fantasy about founding a new political movement, felt longings of one sort or another, and the constant yearning to open a new chapter.

The thirty short chapters of Fima follow its title character through five wintry days in February. Except for a chapter that reprints his former wife’s farewell letter, and except for Annette Tadmor’ 5 long, aggrieved account of her unhappy marriage, the point of view is Fima’ 5.

Fima awakens from uneasy dreams, reads the newspapers, and spends time at his job, but what he does primarily, incessantly, is think: about personal relationships, Israeli politics, the corruption of language, international tensions, and an absent God. He is forever convening and presiding over imaginary cabinet meetings and compos-ing but never sending letters and articles on the sorry state of the planet. He begins but never completes ambitious essays on creeping insensitivity and on the Christian origins of anti-Semitism. Fima envisions a student, whom he names Yoezer, occupying his Jerusalem apartment in 2089, a distant future that he is sure will differ quite dramatically from the present, but he often overlooks actual people alive around him. Acutely mindful of the sufferings of Palestinians and stray pets, Fima is so absent-minded that his telephone service is suspended because he forgets to pay the bill. His compassion extends to the cockroaches that overrun his messy kitchen. Fima is so preoccupied with solving the problems of the world that he neglects to button his shirt. His relationship to money is casual and oblivious.

Less a narrative of extraordinary events than the study of an exasperating yet engaging personality, Fima manages to make the reader care about a man who is a “unique combination of wit and absent-mindedness, of melancholy and enthusiasm, of sensitivity and helplessness, of profundity and buffoonery.” The novel’s title character is kin to ineffectual or irresolute figures in Russian fiction such as Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, Ivan Turgenev’s Bazarov, and Fyodor Dostoevski’s Under-ground Man. Nina Gefen, his best friend’s wife and his own occasional lover, likens Fima to a Pushkin antihero transposed to a Jerusalem neighborhood: “You’re the Eugene Onegin of Kiryat Yovel,” she tells him. In American literature, Fima recalls James Thurber’s Walter Mitty in his absorption in fantasy and Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog in his imaginary exchanges with eminent men. Like Hamlet, who is “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,” Fima is paralyzed by ceaseless cogitation. “That’s the whole of your problem,” explains his former wife, Yael. “You don’t do anything. You just read the papers and get worked up.” Yael, who, after aborting his baby, left Fima almost twenty-five years ago, is an aeronautical engineer; in striking contrast to her immobile former spouse, she specializes in jet propulsion. “What have you done with life’s treasure? What good have you done?” Fima asks himself, and the questions haunt him and the book to which he gives his name.

It was not always so. What his friends call his “tortoise years” have followed Fima’s “billy-goat year.” In 1960, newly graduated from Hebrew University with an honors degree in history, Fima fell madly in love with a French tour guide and pursued her to her home in Lyons. He eventually found himself penniless in Gibraltar and deported to a military prison in Israel. Released after six weeks, Fima impregnated the wife of a prominent official and then bolted to Malta, where he married the owner of the cheap hotel in which he stayed. Less than two months after the wedding, he fled to Greece, where he fell in love with three young Israeli women who were backpacking around the country. It was Yael, the most...

(The entire section is 1771 words.)