Yael Hedaya’s Accidents is an intriguing, maddening novel of contemporary Tel Aviv-intriguing in its astute portrayal of the relationships between its characters, maddening in the shallowness of its vision. During the weeks I spent reading it, I wanted it to end so that I could move into a different, more profound fictional world-but neither could I put it aside until I’d read everyone of its 547 pages.
(I read the novel in the original Hebrew, but has been published in English in a translation by Jessica Cohen. Hedaya was named a finalist for the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for this book; my book, A Crack in the Earth, was a finalist for the 2008 award.)
The time is the 1990s. Yonatan is the middle-aged bestselling author of two novels, but has been melancholy, lost, and unable to write since he lost his wife in an automobile accident. He lives in an apartment in central Tel Aviv with his pre-adolescent daughter, Dana. He meets Shira, whose recent first novel was also a bestseller, and who lives not far from Yonatan and Dana. Shira has been through a number of relationships, most recently with thoughtful, considerate Eitan, but finds herself falling in love with Yonatan, who, truth be said, is not really such a nice guy. The loss of his wife may have given him a good reason to be cold and aloof, but it turns out he’s always been that way. In the end, however, he melts; Shira moves in. Shira is also caring for her ailing father. In the meantime, Dana faces chick cliques at school, and gets through her early teenage years.
This may sound almost satirical or clichéd, but in fact Hedaya is an extremely subtle painter of relationships. Yonatan’s male ennui is precisely portrayed, and as the author moves in and out of the minds of her characters, changing perspectives and points of view from page to page and even paragraph to paragraph, she demonstrates how uncertain and chancy the beginnings of love are, and how joyful, if difficult, it can be when it works. She does not idealize her characters, but she lets us accept and comprehend their virtues and their faults, and their struggle to touch others through the barriers that those faults create. Furthermore, she is an accurate chronicler not only of romance, but also of the love and conflict between children and parents. (One type of relationship is oddly absent–with the sole exception of Yonatan’s late wife, every character in this novel is an only child. )
Once we step outside these relationships, however, Hedaya’s fictional landscape is more problematic. Not being part of the central Tel Aviv literary world, I can’t offer any insight into whether Hedaya’s tapestry is accurate. But accurate or not, these characters lack depth. They spend their lives smoking cigarettes and sitting in cafes, and hardly ever discuss or think of anything beyond their lives and relationships. Yonatan and Shira are both supposed to be novelists, but they never discuss literature with each other. Neither do they, nor anyone else in the book, discuss politics, religion, philosophy, or any other matter of the mind. Furthermore, neither of them displays any particular facility for verbal expression. I found it hard to believe them as successful writers. It’s refreshing to read an Israeli novel that feels no obligation to say something about the conflict with the Palestinians, but have these people no interests at all beyond their own lives?
Hedaya’s characters also stand out in how unimmersed they are in Israeli culture. Yonatan listens to Chopin and the Doors; when he is invited to teach literature at the Hebrew University, he chooses to teach Faulkner and Joyce. Neither he nor Shira adduces any other Israeli writer, composer, singer, artist, historical event, or leader. Except for the fact that they speak Hebrew and read Ha’aretz, this story could be located in any big city in the world.
Furthermore, entire swathes of the real world are absent from the novel. Neither Shira nor Yonatan works for a living. Shira mentions here and there doing a translation; as a translator I can state definitively that doing a translation here and there will not pay for groceries, not to mention rent in downtown Tel Aviv. From the time of his marriage, we are told, Yonatan has received a monthly check from his wife’s American parents, a subsidy that continued after she died. He seems content to live off his in-laws; he does nothing, and has never done anything, to earn money himself. True, Yonatan and Shira have both written bestselling novels, but, given the small size of the Israeli book market, it’s a rare bestseller that brings in enough royalties to support a writer for years on end. Given that most writers struggle daily with the need to pursue their art while at the same time supporting themselves and their families, Shira and Yonatan are not particularly believable on this score.
I finished the novel unsure of the author’s intentions. If Hedaya sees herself as a chronicler, her portrayal falls short. As perceptive as she is in sketching her characters’ inner landscapes, her novel is incognizant of the external reality in which they live. I don’t think she intends her novel as a critique or satire of the detachment and vapidity of Tel Aviv literary life; if that were the case I’d expect more humor and less sympathy for her characters.
Accidents is, in the end, a very deliberate work of fiction. Its virtues make it worth picking up; its flaws make it a relief to put down when it’s read.
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