You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.
by Marty Roth
Discussed in this essay: The Extra, by A. B. Yehoshua. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, 249 pages.
IT SEEMS APPROPRIATE that A. B. Yehoshua’s new novel, The Extra, opens with Noga, the protagonist, awakened at 4 a.m. by a phone call; appropriate also that we never learn who was calling. Yehoshua’s novels are never far from the border of sleep and dreams. Maybe it’s the thick atmosphere of Israel that brings on the lethargy and fatigue that Noga feels, that blurs the specificity of people and events and makes them seem like echoes of one another (although her brother Honi claims it can’t be Israeli fatigue; it must be fatigue that she brought from “your Europe”).
Noga is a middle-aged expatriate, a musician who plays her harp in a Dutch orchestra because there were no positions available in her home country. She has returned to Israel to apartment-sit for her widowed mother Ima while she spends the time in an assisted living facility to see how she likes it. Honi has arranged for Noga (Israeli for Venus) to work as a film and theater extra as compensation for her sacrifice.
The dominant opposition in Yehoshua’s previous novel, The Retrospective, was Ashkenazi vs Sephardi Jew. Here it is secular vs Orthodox Israeli and, therefore, Tel Aviv vs Jerusalem. Honi wants the mother to move from a “blackening Jerusalem to the White City”; “The cosmos is calm in Tel Aviv. History and politics don’t leave it in ruins like Jerusalem.” Orthodox Jews are black, primarily for the color of the clothing they wear, although the young khasid whom Noga bathes wears a soiled diaper and has dirty hands. Honi says that secular Jews won’t visit Jerusalem for fear the Orthodox will throw stones at them. The Orthodox are also alleged to be feeble and sickly because of years of intermarriage. But this opposition plays itself out early in the book.
The theme that seems to matter most is that of childlessness which may reflect the anxiety that the Orthodox birthrate produces in secular society (Shaya, Noga’s boyhood friend, has already fathered ten or eleven children). It may be another shadow of the Holocaust, or fear of the imagined prolific birthrate of Israel’s Palestinian and Arab neighbors –- probably all of the above. Noga refused to have children and this act of defiance haunts the novel in Kafkaesque reverberations. The issue is raised by everybody, intimate or new acquaintance; it has lingered for years as a concern or resentment, nurtured by her family and ex-husband; it precipitated the breakup of the marriage. Two Orthodox children who persistently invade her apartment (invading others people’s lives is a prominent theme in the novel) in order to watch forbidden television are in some sense replacements for the children Noga didn’t have.
In the opening of The Retrospective, we were told that Israel has such an energetic film culture because Ben Gurion banished television broadcasting for fear that the pioneers would waste precious sleeping time. The opposition between film and television is reprised in The Extra, largely through Noga’s work as a film extra and the two Hasidic children who steal into the apartment to watch television, forbidden by rabbinic edict because of its worldliness. The younger appears to be autistic (a “beautiful, golden child”), he may one day become the tzaddik (a holy man of miracles) and can only be calmed by television. He screams when it is turned off.
The meaning of the novel’s title, as well as Noga’s work as an extra, are hard to pin down. On her first shoot, she is on a boat with other Holocaust refugees. She then serves on a jury and pronounces a guilty verdict on a woman accused of killing her husband; she plays a Gypsy pulling a wagonload of Arab children in a production of Carmen staged at Masada; she plays a woman in a wheelchair in a hospital drama. She also plays the victim of an American psychiatrist, another Israeli returnee, who as a mentally disturbed child had been committed to an institution, where he intuited revolutionary insights about the psychology of children.
The novel is about these and other things; among them the tragic/comic/ordinary fact that there is no way to end a relationship -- its hooks and echoes go on clinging and ringing forever.
CORRESPONDING to the personal obsessions of the characters, the novel circles obsessively around a narrow set of themes and motifs, mainly doors, keys and beds, supporting the New York Time’s dubbing of Yehoshua as the Israeli Faulkner. Also, like David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, The Extra is steeped in topography, in this case of Israeli streets and sections. This fabric is all very ordinary, but Yehoshua’s ordinary is never far from the mysterious and the mystical. Repetition imbues every object with a quasi-symbolic density. We readers accumulate domestic detail and family history conveyed in a tone of familial pilpul, a lot of gentle but persistent nagging, splitting hairs, equivocating, which sometimes (in the case of Ima, particularly) approaches the condition of whining.
In a country as stridently defensive about its political situation as Israel, I’m always sensitive to the absence of the larger picture, and I resist the implied message that daily life is unburdened by anything more troubling than friction among family members and acquaintances. Yehoshua himself has taken younger writers to task about their lack of politics: “The new generation, instead of dealing with the Palestinian issue, they do a play or write a story. All the energy is going into the culture.” He has been a citizen who can say: “The occupation is poisoning us. Poisoning us! The problem is not only for the Palestinians. It’s poisoning Israel, poisoning the DNA of the Israeli people.”
The Extra is ultimately unsatisfactory, but it is rich and full of fascinating turns. I should immediately qualify this judgment: it is unsatisfactory as a traditional narrative, but I suspect that was not what Yehoshua was after. What he has given us is a musical structure, a fictional equivalent to Debussy’s “La Mer,” a piece for two harps whose performance dominates the end of the novel and culminates Noga’s yearning. Characters also keep reminding us of the always available pun, la mer/la mère.
The harp is seldom used in performances, so Noga is desolate when she loses the chance to play Mozart’s “Concerto for Flute and Harp in C-major,” and the Debussy is compensation for this lack. Impressionist and symbolist, Debussy, writes Yehoshua, turned to “exotic areas of influence, taking non-European scales and musical color from the Far East” in order to “evoke the complexity of nature and humans, first and foremost to fathom the soul of woman.” The resultant composition evokes a “complex and dreamlike harmonic world.” Its “repetitiveness is unsettling.”
Marty Roth is an retired American academic living in Vancouver. For the last ten years he has written for and helped to edit Canadian Jewish Outlook.