Second Person Singular
Like the two protagonists of his most recent novel, Second Person Singular (translated from the Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg), Sayed Kashua is a Jerusalem-educated Arab Israeli. He is a columnist for Haaretz, a liberal newspaper, and the creator of the hit sitcom, Arab Labor. Kashua’s work is often controversial, especially among the Palestinian population of Israel, both for his humorous use of cultural stereotypes and presentations of Muslims engaging in drinking and pre-marital sex. His writing for Arab Labor was described by The New York Times as irreverent toward Jewish and Arab Israelis alike – a style that is subtly present in Second Person Singular.
Contrary to what the title might lead us to expect, half of the book is written in the third person and half is written in the first person singular, but none of it is written in the second person singular. The third person thread chronicles the story of a nameless man identified only as “the lawyer”; the other thread is told from the perspective of a social worker whose name is eventually revealed, but withheld for much of the novel. The lawyer’s drama hinges on his discovery of a note in his wife’s handwriting and the consequent paranoia that she might be cheating on him, while the social worker’s conflict centers on his experience as a caretaker for a paralyzed, vegetative Jewish young man. The two plot lines, if not exactly intertwined, are related, yet the stronger connection between the narratives lies in the two characters’ painstaking efforts to blend in with their Jewish colleagues.
In the passages following the lawyer, the narrator strikes an almost satirical tone. The lawyer’s every action seems calculated to raise his esteem in the eyes of his family, peers, and even perfect strangers. Whenever a friendly rival upgrades his sports car, the lawyer must buy a new one that is even better; he keeps an office in an expensive Jewish neighborhood despite the fact that all his clients are Arab Israelis; when he goes to buy a book that embarrasses him, he asks the cashier to giftwrap it. Once a month he and his wife take part in a couples’ night, complete with overpriced sushi and post-dinner discussions of predetermined topics.
Yet just when you think the book could be a mockery of the lawyer for trying too hard to conform to Western culture, it careens off in another direction. When the lawyer irrationally concludes that his wife is unfaithful, he assumes a more convenient ideology to suit his rage:
Experience had taught him that he was a conservative. Yes, a conservative, and from now on he would not be apologetic about it. What an idiot an idiot he had been when he spoke out, time and again, against the treatment of women in the Arab World, saying that it was widespread misogyny that held these societies back.
His outbursts, while disturbing, seem less like genuine expressions of feeling and more like attempts to react the way that he thinks people in his situation should react. I appreciated the dark comedy in this half-instinctive/half-intellectual neurosis, particularly in small moments, such as the time the lawyer googles “why women cheat.”
There is less comedy present in the sections detailing the life of the social worker, in part because his first person narration provides fewer opportunities for satire. Unlike the lawyer, he does everything he can to fade away from notice, positive or negative. His ethnically ambiguous name and physical appearance, as well as his fluency in both Arabic and Hebrew, allow him to slip between cultures and witness more of the ugly prejudices present in Israeli society. Van drivers rant to him about Zionist “collaborators”; Jewish university students joke to him about the “token Arabs” in their programs; modern Muslim Jerusalemites scorn conventional women that wear hijabs. It is no wonder that he feels embarrassed wherever he goes. In a crowded Jewish nightclub he expounds:
I want to be like them. Free, loose, full of dreams, able to think about love. . . the who felt no need to apologize for their existence, no need to hide their identity. Like them… To feel like I belong, without feeling guilty or disloyal. And what exactly was I being disloyal to?
The last question of the passage comes across both as a genuine inquiry and an attempt by the narrator to justify his behavior. This ambivalence runs through the entire novel as the two men take great measures to feel comfortable within Jewish circles of the Jerusalem community, yet feel uncomfortable about having taken those measures. The implication seems to be that they lose something un-nameable – maybe even unrecognizable – in the process of assimilation. Still, it is unclear whether or not this ineffable sacrifice is worth grieving.