Mr. Mani

A.B. Yehoshua

translated from the Hebrew by Hillel Halkin
Peter Halban 1992
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011
In five separate but linked parts, set in 1848, 1899, 1918, 1944 and 1982, in Greece, Austrian Poland, British Palestine, German-occupied Crete and Israel, Mr. Mani presents stories about a lineage of Manis. These stories are presented in reverse chronological order, making the links between them occasionally surprising — and making a re-reading tempting.

An unusual feature is that each part takes the form of a conversation, but with only one participant's speech included. The other participants' parts are described as "lost". Except for one conversation involving a stroke victim unable to speak, this is entirely artificial, since these are face-to-face conversations and not exchanges of letters or telephone conversations. Reading these "half conversations" feels a bit strange at first, with occasional pauses to think about the missing speaker's words, but one rapidly becomes accustomed to it.

Each conversation is prefaced by brief "biographies" of the participants and followed by brief "afterwords" describing their subsequent lives.

In 1982 a young student, whose father was killed in the Six Day War, travels from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to check up on the father (Mani) of her boyfriend. She may or may not be pregnant and Mani may or may not be trying to commit suicide, but the city of Jerusalem has a profound impact on her. She is telling the story of this trip to her mother, back at the kibbutz where she was raised.

In 1944, at Heraklion in Crete, a German soldier has become obsessed with Knossos, history, and his own plan to save Germany's reputation. He has also been involved with the Jewish Mani family and played a role in the deaths of two of them. He is telling all this to his grandmother, who has come to Crete to force him to return to Germany.

In 1918 a Mani, shocked by the Balfour Declaration, has become obsessed with trying to warn people about the danger it poses to them. A British lieutenant (who is himself Jewish) is prosecuting him for treason, since he happens to have a British passport, and is telling his life story, uncovered with difficulty, to the judge.

In 1899 a Polish Jew, just returned home, is telling his father about his and his sister's attendance at the Third Zionist Conference in Basel and their subsequent visit to Palestine. This story is dominated by their encounter with a Mani, with whose fate they became inextricably intertwined.

And in 1848 a Mani is telling his dying Rabbi about his visit to Jerusalem and his desperate attempts to help his son and daughter-in-law have a child. He is seeking permission to commit one terrible sin as penance for another.

These stories are linked by genealogy, with some slight direct overlapping of Manis, but Yehoshua doesn't impose any structure on top of that, via symbolism or prophecy or artefactual continuity. There are, however, a number of recurring themes. There is generational confusion, with a son raised by a grandmother who is actually his step-mother and several fathers who have complex relationships with their daughters-in-law. And all the conversations involve children talking with their parents or someone with similar standing — a soldier talking to a higher-ranking officer and a pupil talking to his rabbi.

In four of the conversations Jerusalem looms large, with its sacred and numinous places, hidden by-ways, and diverse peoples. And we get a glimpse of the sprawling Sephardic world of the eastern Mediterranean.

None of this, however, interferes with the basic story-telling. The speakers in the conversations may be excited, under stress, and more or less unprepared, but Yehoshua skilfully works into what they say a real narrative, with good pacing and development of dramatic tension. Mr Mani is a striking and memorable novel.

May 2011

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%T Mr. Mani
%A Yehoshua, A.B.
%M Hebrew
%F Halkin, Hillel
%I Peter Halban
%D 1992 [1988]
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 1870015568
%P 368pp