Sunday 23 October 2016

Dextrous and impressive debut set in Israel

Philip Womack

Published 26/04/2015 | 02:30

Wry-prose: Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Wry-prose: Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
One Night, Markovitch

One Night, Markovitch is an assured debut novel that concerns itself with timeless themes of love and survival. Its main setting is Israel, before, during and after the Second World War, while the country struggles to forge itself.

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This process of transformation occurs at the level of character too, as everyone attempts to form themselves and their new lives, whether through marrying, having children or through language - one immigrant woman, after reaching the Holy Land, refuses to speak German any more. It is an ongoing process, however. Borders shift and so do personalities, until death.

Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston into prose that is wry, ironically tinged and poignant, the novel follows the friendship between two men, Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg, and shows how their lives are shaped not only by their own impulses but by larger historical and political forces.

The catalyst for the novel is an Israeli plan to send young men to Europe. There, they marry single Jewish women, thus rescuing scores and taking them back to Israel, where they promptly divorce.

The only problem is that Yaacov, a man with such a forgettable face that he is regularly sent out to smuggle weapons, is paired with Bella, the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Yaacov senses that here is his moment, and unlike the other men, he refuses to divorce. His wife has other ideas, and they are forced to live together, torn up with unrequited love on the one hand, and brimming with loathing on the other.

When Bella bears the child of a poet, things get worse.

The other characters' lives play out in similar minor wars of attrition. Affairs are constant; both Yaacov and Zeev end up raising children who aren't their own. All are waiting for something: whether it's a woman on the shoreline, seeking her husband; or Yaacov, waiting for his wife to love him.

Gundar-Goshen occasionally strays into the territory of magical realism: as when a man jumps into the sea and swims several miles to shore. These little moments add a strange kind of beauty to the texture, reminding us that the miraculous is only a step away from the mundane.

There are many striking images, which often add to this quality: "Wicked animals leapt from Michael Katz's mouth in herds and flocks and galloped into the house."

Although the final third, which examines the children of the main characters, shades into predictability, the ending reasserts itself.

This is a fable for the 21st century, and Gundar-Goshen a writer whose dexterity proclaims her one to watch.


One Night, Markovitch

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

Pushkin Press, pbk, e13.76, pp384

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

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