Not of This Time, Not of This Place

by Yehuda Amichai

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475

The highly autobiographical novel Not of This Time, Not of This Place recounts the struggles of its protagonist, Joel, over the question of whether to return to his native Germany or to remain in Jerusalem, where he has found himself after the end of World War II. Jerusalem appeals to Joel because of the stimulation he derives from its exotic locale. A young archaeologist at the city’s Hebrew University, Joel dreams of staying in Jerusalem because of the vague promise of discovering a new lover. Although he is married, he is only tentatively loyal to his wife and views the prospect of an illicit love affair as a chance to embark on a new life in a new country.

In contrast, the “old” aspects of Germany, with much of the nation reduced to ruin, offer Joel little incentive to return. However, there is one compelling reason to go back: Joel feels morally obligated to return to Germany and confront the former Nazis who murdered his close childhood friend. Another friend enigmatically suggests that Joel both remain in Israel and return to Germany. But how is he to live two lives at once, in two completely different countries?

At this point, the novel embarks on a brave stylistic experiment; it splits into two parallel but alternating narratives, one told in the third person and the other told in the first person. In the third-person narrative, Joel remains in Jerusalem and enters into an obsessive love affair with an American woman. Seeking to reinvent himself, Joel experiences a series of events that reveal new sides of himself. Ultimately, he realizes he can never completely shake off his past, but he does find that he can at least dim its memory by immersing himself in the quixotic landscapes Jerusalem offers. In the alternate first-person narrative, Joel returns to Germany. In literal terms, he seeks understanding of and vengeance for his former friend’s murder. Figuratively, he likewise seeks reconciliation with his nebulous but undeniable past.

Some reviewers have criticized the parallel narratives for being uneven, finding the Jerusalem passage more energetic and metaphorically lush than the episodes set in Germany. However, it is important to keep in mind that the novel’s central purpose is to seamlessly merge style with substance. The Jerusalem narrative embodies hope, fancy, and the pursuit of a bigger and brighter future that can and sometimes does shelter people from their unresolved pasts. Naturally, such subject matter calls for the wistful, quixotic depictions that Amichai grants it. The German narrative, on the other hand, is driven by a different purpose. It tells the story of Joel’s direct reconciliation with his ominous and unresolved past, one that must be related in more Spartan, less fanciful imagery and language. With commendable precision, Amichai seamlessly weaves the two narratives into a provocative and innovative whole.

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