Friday, 18 July 2014

Book Review: Only Yesterday by S. Y. Agnon centuries Palestine has been the place of nostalgia for millions of Jews living spattered all over the world in Disaspora, but only rising nationalism in the late nineteenth century made them seriously think of returning to live in the Promised Land of the Thora and of rebuilding a Jewish state. As shows Only Yesterday by S. Y. Agnon, who together with poet Nelly Sachs won the Nobel Prize in Literature 1966, many early immigrants were dreamers and often ignorant of the situation in the Holy Land under Ottoman rule. They arrived in a country that didn’t welcome them as they had imagined and that instead of being virtually empty and waiting for cultivation was the home of Arabic families who had been living there for generations.

Shmuel Yosef Agnon (שמואל יוסף עגנון) was born as Samuel Josef Halevi Czaczkes in Buczacz (today: Buchach), Galicia, Austria-Hungary (today: Ukraine), in July 1888. Already as a boy the son of a rabbi and fur trader began to write poems and stories in Yiddish as well as in Hebrew. At the age of twenty he immigrated to Palestine where he adopted the pen name Agnon. In 1913 he travelled to Germany where he got stuck during World War I, founded a family and continued to write. Only nine years later he returned to Jerusalem. The novel The Bridal Canopy (הכנסת כלה) established Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s fame as a Hebrew writer in 1931. A Simple Story (סיפור פשוט: 1935), A Guest for the Night (אוֹרֵחַ נָטָה לָלוּן: 1938), Only Yesterday (תמול שלשום: 1945), and To This Day (עד הנה: 1952) count among his most important works. In 1966 the author was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature together with the German-Swedish poet Nelly Sachs. Shmuel Yosef Agnon died in Jerusalem, Israel, in February 1970. The novel Shira (שירה: 1971) and several short stories were published posthumously by his daughter.

The main scene of Only Yesterday is Palestine during the years before World War I. In his small Galician home town Isaac Kumer has been dreaming of ascending the Holy Land of the Thora for virtually all his life and gradually his Zionistic zeal threatens to ruin the poor family business. In addition, he is coming of age to be called up for military service in the Austro-Hungarian army. Thus his father borrows money to make his oldest son’s emigration to Palestine possible. The journey goes by train to the port of Trieste (then part of Austria-Hungary, now in Italy) where the idealistic young man embarks on a ship to Jaffa. On board he befriends an elderly Hungarian-Jewish couple joining their daughter and her family in Jerusalem to lead a pious life and to eventually be buried in the Holy Land. Jaffa is a bustling port town and very different from what Isaac expected. He tries to hire himself out as a farm labourer because first of all he has come to Palestine to cultivate fallow land and soon learns that even Jewish farmers prefer taking on experienced and cheaper Arabs. Among the many men looking for work in vain Isaac quickly makes friends. They introduce him into the diverse and secular Jewish society of Jaffa, but as a Galician he remains an outsider since the majority of Jews there are Russians. Like everybody else Isaac has a hard time making a living until one day he is asked to finish a house painter’s work and develops the chance job into a decent career. When his best friend returns to Europe to learn a trade, which will be useful to build Israel, he is left with his girl-friend Sonya whom he admires. However, he is shy with women and he has a bad conscience about seeing her without his friend’s knowledge and approval. As time goes by, Sonya loses interest in Isaac and neglects him. At last, he decides to make a trip to Jerusalem. The city is different from Jaffa in many ways, above all Jewry is more orthodox, but Isaac doesn’t take long to adapt and stays resuming his work as a house painter. In the streets of Jerusalem Isaac comes across the elderly couple whom he met on board of the ship from Trieste. He becomes a regular visitor at their home although their extremely orthodox son-in-law, Reb Fayesh, disapproves of him as an ordinary Polak. On a whim Isaac one day paints the words “Crazy Dog” on the back of Balak, a stray dog. For weeks on end those two Hebrew words cause terror and confusion in the city, while the small dog is increasingly bewildered by people’s reaction to it. One night Reb Fayesh is surprised by Balak and is so shocked that he breaks down paralysed. Isaac helps the family best he can and falls in love with Reb Fayesh’s daughter Shifra, but he still needs to settle a few things before he can ask for her hand.

Although the omniscient narrating voice of Only Yesterday refers to himself as “we” and always talks of Isaac, Balak and everybody else in the third person – even in what must really be considered as inner monologues –, it’s not quite clear who actually tells the story because the point of view of the undisclosed collective shifts ever again and allows many interpretations. At first sight the plot of the novel seems rather simple, but in reality it is so multilayered that it is difficult to take in all aspects of personal, societal, religious, political, and economic development. The unexpected and Kafkaesque or fable-like appearance of the dog Balak towards the end of the second book introduces a bizarre and often ironical dimension into the story. Historical and socioeconomic facts regarding the situation of Jews living both in Europe and in Palestine at the time are told in great detail and accuracy as is the scenery of Jaffa and Jerusalem. S. Y. Agnon’s novel is monumental and epic to a degree that it surely isn’t to everybody’s taste. By modern standards it’s rather too lengthy with its about 640 pages, not counting the introduction and a very helpful as well as indispensable glossary. The language of the novel is poetic, but it often feels rather stilted – probably because it’s deliberately leaned on Biblical diction. I also suspect that the author used many modified quotations from and allusions to Hebrew, Aramaic and Yiddish texts which I don’t know at all. Sentences are often long and in many places incorporate direct address to others, even dialogues, which is made visible only by the unexpected use of a capital letter after a comma. Despite all, it isn’t difficult to read.

Although reading Only Yesterday by S. Y. Agnon I struggled with its peculiar style more than once, I enjoyed the experience. The bulky volume is an interesting (and important) example of Modern Hebrew literature and taught me a few things about the historical roots of the never ending conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. In fact, it seems quite revealing to me to find that Arabs are almost absent from the novel and if they appear, it often is in a negative light. The read left me with the impression that everything non-Jewish was invisible to those early settlers, ie outside their limits of perception, but pretending not to see what you don’t want to be has never been a good strategy. On the other hand, it may just have been a narrative necessity to concentrate on Jewish life in the early years of the twentieth century. In any case, the novel deserves my recommendation.

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This review is a contribution to the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge.

For more information and a complete list of books that I already reviewed for it »»» please read my sign-up post!

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