Human Resources, Personal Effects


A Woman in Jerusalem
By A. B. Yehoshua
Translated by Hillel Halkin
256 pages. Harcourt. $25.00.

Living in a city attacked month after month by suicide bombers has a way of focusing one’s attention on the big questions. Or so you might think. In practice, denial often trumps sober reflection, and in times of existential stress many people deflect their attention into work, family, and routine.

As the owner of a large industrial bakery in Jerusalem, a deftly sketched character in A Woman in Jerusalem, A. B. Yehoshua’s novel of the recent Intifada years, discovers, months of stressful living bring a spike in the consumption of comfort foods such as bread and cakes. (The terrorism-induced recession also encourages the purchase of bread in place of more expensive foods.)

If the denial response outlasts the danger, one might never come to consider those existential issues raised by a threat to the life of a city or a nation. When the month-long Gulf War ended on Purim in 1991, we Israelis left behind the sealed rooms, traded gas masks for costume masks, and the next day resumed our lives without fanfare or ceremony. Even the prolonged Palestinian terrorist campaign that began in 2000 faded before our emotional defenses were so frayed that many of us had to consider deeply what it meant that walking out our doorways each morning was a choice to risk death. Jerusalem in 2000­­-2004 never became Sarajevo in the mid-1990s.

Single stories, real or invented, sometimes focus attention on vital questions in ways the barrage of hourly news and daily papers cannot. In March 2002 Israelis were shocked and puzzled when only 16 of the 17 victims of a bus bombing were identified by relatives or friends. Only nine months later was the "17th victim” identified, a 35-year-old man from Tel Aviv, unemployed and estranged from his family. Such anonymity was widely considered impossible here. The identification jolted us into considering issues no one had anticipated.

Yehoshua’s tightly constructed novel winds outward from a similar tale into similarly unexpected realizations about our relationships with those closest to us. A reporter for a Jerusalem weekly learns from the staff of a hospital morgue that among the personal effects of a woman killed in a suicide bombing a week before was a remnant from a pay slip from that mammoth bakery. He writes a scathing exposé of industrial inhumanity, citing the bakery’s lack of attention to the disappearance of a worker. The owner, leaked the story in advance by the editor of the weekly, summons the head of his human resources division and orders him to salvage the owner’s reputation by tracking down the dead woman’s identity. The HR manager’s needs and commitments, along with those of several other bakery employees, are instantly brushed aside by the owner’s desire to “rescue his humanity,” while the owner himself indulges in an evening at the symphony.

The victim is a foreign worker from a former Soviet republic, divorced and alone in Israel, whose manager had fired her but left her on the payroll. No longer young, she had been blessed still with an intriguing beauty noticed by all but the HR manager, who had interviewed her but now has no memory of that encounter. He is soon assigned the task of seeing the journey through to its end: repatriation, burial, compensation for the next of kin. The second half of the novel is the recounting of that journey.

The HR manager is the title character in the original Hebrew edition of the book, the title of which may be rendered The Mission of the Director of Human Resources. His story is the core of the novel. It is his attempts at constructing a new routine amidst the ruins of his marriage that are thrown off course, his life that is altered by the book’s events.

The changes are mostly for the better. His detective work and his noble mission catch the interest of his pre-teen daughter, who lives with her mother, a resentful ex-wife from whom he has only recently separated. His own mother, with whom he has gone to live, remains disappointed in him, but later he does encounter a glimmer of appreciation from his ex-wife. His boss finds deeper respect for the young manager’s ingenuity and integrity. He himself moves beyond resentment at the burden he is asked to bear into pride in seeing the dead woman finally laid to rest in the most appropriate place.

Yehoshua, a versatile and mature novelist whose works have evolved from early surrealist stories to fully realized realist fiction, allows himself some experimentation with form in this novel. First-person voices are heard from time to time, in clusters of paragraphs set off in italics: night shift workers at the bakery, the children of the dead woman’s neighbors, the staff of a Jerusalem bar frequented at night by the lonely HR manager. These passages help advance the plot, but they also furnish periodic reminders of the ways in which our actions affect others, particularly those to whom we barely give a thought and whose awareness of us is at the periphery of our own awareness—like the dead guestworker herself.

And what of that awareness of ourselves? One might think that living through the Intifada would help clarify to oneself just who one is. But random killing is ultimately no source of meaning. The act of terror, or rather its motive, its planning, and its execution, play no role in Yehoshua’s story, as they play none in Israel’s self-image. It is, instead, the aftermath with which this book deals. In the midst of the ever-renewed mourning and grieving of others, Israelis went about their lives. As our protagonist—who is unnamed in this book, in contrast to the dead woman, whose name we learn early on—moves across the globe, his real progress is outward from the shell in which his secretary says he has been living. The denial he most needed to break through was his own denial of the vital importance of his closest family relationships. The human resources he most needed to learn to appreciate were the resources within himself.