Book Review | The Other Side of Dementia

The Tunnel
By A. B. Yehoshua
Translated by Stuart Schoffman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
324 pp., $15.99

If you live long enough, you will notice a paradox of aging: Diminishment of memory can sometimes go hand in hand with a greater capacity for complexity and for the kind of revelation that can be seen only through shadow. A.B. Yehoshua’s 12th novel, The Tunnel, recently translated into English—playful, familial and digressive—is about a particular example of this phenomenon. But, as is often the case with Yehoshua, long recognized as a founder of modern Israeli fiction, the story of an individual can lead to an overview of the country’s history as well as its difficulties.

The novel begins in a neurologist’s office, where 72-year-old Zvi Luria, a retired road builder and an engineer who has been experiencing idiosyncratic forgetfulness, is confronted with a brain scan confirming his and his family’s suspicions about his decline. We’re told that he’s been having trouble remembering names, particularly first names, which, he says, “fade away when I reach out to touch them.” More seriously, he recently made the cardinal error of almost taking home the wrong little boy when he was supposed to be picking up his grandson from kindergarten. The young doctor he’s consulting respectfully encourages him to fight back against the atrophy, which at this point exists only as a tiny dot in his cerebral cortex, and proposes a few things that might slow the pace of further deterioration: Luria should push himself to retrieve the names that stubbornly elude him, and he should remain as active as possible in all aspects of life, including passion. The doctor also asks him to think of ways in which he might be able to find work in his old profession, and it’s that suggestion which sets the plot in motion.

Not long after that doctor’s appointment, Luria attends a retirement party for an old colleague in the government building where he once worked. The event is elegant in the upscale manner of contemporary Israel, with speeches and commemorative videos and waiters carrying large trays of canapés followed by desserts topped with burning sparklers. When he escapes the festivities as well as an uncomfortable social encounter, Luria peeks into his old office and sees that a photograph of Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, is still positioned on the wall where he left it. He recalls how, at the beginning of his career, he selected Ben-Zvi, who had lost a son in the War of Independence, as a model and deterrent against corruption (a problem that, however, has remained an inescapable component of Israeli life).

Curiously, Luria also finds Asael Maimoni, a handsome young man and the son of his old legal counsel, busily working at his old desk. Maimoni, himself an engineer, has been commissioned by the army to build a secret road in the south. Because of this chance encounter, Luria, following his doctor’s advice, soon becomes an unpaid and part-time partner, assisting Maimoni on the secret road, a project that turns out to involve much more than the theory and practice of engineering. We learn that the intended road, earmarked for the area of the Ramon Crater in the Negev, is blocked by a hill where an Israeli official is hiding an identity-less Palestinian family who can neither return safely to the West Bank nor take up residence in Israel. Maimoni has decided to insert an unplanned tunnel into the government project so as to protect the hill and the family. He calculates that Luria’s reputation, expertise and influence will help convince authorities to approve his unplanned addition and its unbudgeted expenses.

Memory has special and problematic meaning in Israel, where the searing influence of the remembered Holocaust and Nakba may function as barriers to resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yehoshua tells the story—almost a fable—of Luria, Maimoni, the tunnel and the hill with an intimacy and light touch that disguise its many complexities. To the book’s Israeli audience, for whom Yehoshua is a public figure and well-known advocate for peace, as well as for Zionism, Luria’s story presents a cameo of the author’s tender and affectionate relationship to his wife, who died in 2016. The journeys that Luria and Maimoni make also provide an opportunity to revisit a beloved geography. As they drive through the southern region, the two road builders make a stop at the tombstones of David Ben-Gurion and his wife, where the plain slabs are set at the rim of the Nahal Tzin canyon. Luria contemplates their simplicity: only letters for their names and numbers for the dates of their births in the diaspora, the dates of their aliyahs and the dates of their deaths. The detour also gives Yehoshua a chance to go back to his own childhood memories of the first prime minister, whose Jerusalem house he used to pass on his way to school in the 1950s. In those days, he recalls in amazement, the prime minister’s home was guarded by a single policeman who was sometimes sent on errands by Ben-Gurion’s wife, who would then take his place, standing watch at the door in her bathrobe. The memory of Israel’s modest beginnings is in stark contrast to today’s opulence and tragic need for security that has come along with a huge and troubling buildup of power.

Memory has special and problematic meaning in Israel, where the searing influence of the remembered Holocaust and Nakba may function as barriers to resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yehoshua has spoken about this in other forums, suggesting that there may be some benefit to relinquishing memory: Perhaps that’s what’s needed to take the first step toward illumination. The conceit of the tunnel is, of course, rich with meaning. We know that sometimes tunnels burrow through darkness underground and that in other cases they bore through stony obstacles; they’re passageways that allow travelers to move from one place to another, and it’s often thought that changes will occur during such transitions. In the doctor’s office, Luria ruefully thinks of the tunnel as a place to hide his dementia, but before that, when he was building roads in Israel’s central region and in the north, one of his projects included a tunnel that protected forest animals—deer, wild boar, small creatures like rabbits. His tunnel made it possible for creatures of nature to move safely across the road, especially in the dark and at night. This surreal and primordial image interplays with the many layers of meaning as the novel explores the relationship between the spirit and the brain, memory and love, as well as memory and identity.

Frances Brent writes often about art and literature. She is the author of The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson.

 

 

 

 

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