The subtitle of A. B. Yehoshua’s Friendly Fire is A Duet, but its most distinguishing characteristic is the dissonance between its two voices. In the novel’s series of brief alternating sections we are shuttled between the perspectives of a gently controlling husband, Amotz Ya’ari, an engineer; and his increasingly distracted wife Daniela, a schoolteacher. On the morning after the first night of Hanukkah, Amotz takes Daniela to the Tel Aviv airport to board a flight to Nairobi, the layover stop on her way to Morogoro, Tanzania, to visit her brother-in-law Yirmiyahu, the widowed husband of her sister Shuli, who died a year before.
Instead of returning to Israel after Shuli’s death and the more recent termination of his job as chargé d’affaires of the Israeli economic mission in Dar es Salaam, Yirmiyahu has fled to an area southwest of Morogoro for a new job with an anthropological research team. Disgusted with his home country, Yirmiyahu is still bitterly mourning another death: that of his son Eyal, an Israeli soldier killed on the West Bank seven years before by friendly fire, just before the start of the second intifada.
The purpose of Daniela’s unprecedented solo journey (she is rarely separated from Amotz and relies on him to handle most of the day-to-day details of life) is to rekindle, with Yirmiyahu’s help, her mourning of Shuli, the gradual fading of which, she believes, is the cause of her recent absentmindedness:
it’s not consolation she wants. On the contrary, she is looking for precise words, forgotten facts—or maybe new ones—that will inflame her pain and grief . . . and crack open the crust of forgetfulness that has begun to envelop her.
Amotz, who has stayed behind so as not to intrude on his wife’s mission, has business of his own to conduct: as the head of an elevator-design firm, he must discover the source of a flaw in a newly constructed apartment building that on windy days is causing the elevator shaft to wail and howl, emitting “a growl of stifled fury that at certain floors shifts into mournful sobbing.” Throughout the novel’s seven chapters—one for each of the remaining nights of Hanukkah—Amotz will attempt to solve this problem while also contending with the numerous grievances and emergencies of his family: his ailing father, founder of the firm; his estranged daughter; his son Moran, currently in military custody for shirking reserve duty; his temperamental daughter-in-law Efrat; and Efrat and Moran’s two anxious, high-strung young children.
Meanwhile, Daniela is quickly seduced by the quiet rhythms and bleak beauty of life in her brother-in-law’s new home at the anthropologists’ base camp. She spends relatively little time with Yirmiyahu, befriending the elderly groundskeeper, several members of the anthropological team, and, most affectingly, Sijjin Kuang, the stately Sudanese infirmary nurse who also works as Yirmiyahu’s driver and is thus frequently called upon to convey Daniela to and from various locations. Sijjin Kuang, who has survived the unspeakably violent civil war of the southern Sudan, is an animist who worships (in Daniela’s words) “spirits” and “winds”; she becomes a source of quiet strength and comfort to Daniela in the face of Yirmiyahu’s fierce disdain for his fellow Israelis, which he is sometimes not above taking out on his sister-in-law.
The novel operates in two parallel registers with little in common: ironic comedy in Israel, solemn melancholy in Tanzania. Yehoshua expertly captures and subtly contrasts the richness of Amotz’s busy week in Tel Aviv with the stark poetry of the landscape around Morogoro. What’s more, he is a genius at conjuring living, breathing characters out of just a few lines of dialogue and a brief physical description. And there is plenty of room in each half of the narrative for short, memorable digressions. In Israel, for example, we get a tour of the military training camp in Karkur where Moran has been placed under detention; in Tanzania, through the thoughts and observations of Daniela and Yirmiyahu, we are treated to an analysis of some instructive linguistic contrasts between the Hebrew and King James versions of the Old Testament.
But as Friendly Fire progresses and then begins to wind down, the drawbacks of its dual structure become more apparent. While it takes most of the novel’s length for Amotz to eventually confront and subdue the “uninvited spirits” trapped in the elevator shaft, Daniela’s longed-for epiphany about her dead sister arrives too abruptly, and too early in her portion of the story, to make much of an impact on the reader. Instead, she becomes a nearly passive sounding board for Yirmiyahu’s rage toward the Israeli government’s prosecution of its continual war with the Palestinians, and the lengthy (if fascinating) objections he raises against the Biblical book of his namesake, the angry prophet Jeremiah.
(Incidentally, it’s unusual to fault a Yehoshua novel for poor design. Among his many other works in English translation, each one vibrant and rewarding in unique ways, are several distinguished by their structural elegance, including the genuine 20th-century masterpiece Mr. Mani, a book so architecturally daring and intricate that it defies quick summary here.)
Most disappointing of all, when Amotz and Daniela come back together at novel’s end, their reunion feels hurried and strained. Neither seems to show much real interest in the other’s adventures, despite the fact that each has had tender thoughts about the other during the week-long separation. Nor has the significance of the novel’s setting during Hanukkah ever really been established or elaborated upon. Instead, as husband and wife prepare to light the candles on the final night of the holiday, we are left with a feeling of regret over too many possibilities unexplored, too many potential echoes unexpressed, two intriguing, interwoven melodies adding up to less than the sum of their parts.
“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .
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