“One Night, Markovitch” is the first novel by the young and gifted Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen; the Hebrew original appeared in 2012, while the English translation by Sondra Silverston followed in 2015 (London: Pushkin Press).
The book is divided into three major sections: Before, During and After, plus a seven-page After After. These time signifiers revolve around Israel’s War of Independence, beginning with the Arab attack in response to Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, and continuing, in its very last phase, until March 10, 1949.
Gundar-Goshen starts her story with a description of two fast friends: Yaacov Markovitch, an ineffectual, totally forgettable man – a nebbish – and Zeev Feinberg, both a lady’s man and a man’s man, well known for his distinguished mustache.
The two men are chosen to be part of a group of 20 young men sent by the Irgun (a pre-Israel fighting force) to Nazi-dominated Europe to marry Jewish women they have never met.
Their marriage certificates will permit the temporary husbands to bring the women to Palestine, thus rescuing them from Nazi persecution. Upon their safe arrival, their husbands will immediately divorce them, freeing them to pursue their lives in the developing Jewish homeland.
The hitch in these legal shenanigans is that Markovitch, upon setting his eyes on the beautiful Bella Zeigerman, decides that he will never unhitch her, never grant her a get, a Jewish divorce.
Markovitch’s refusal to grant Bella her freedom has devastating consequences not only for their hellish marriage but also for all those who become tangled up in the ever-expanding web of their despair.
To be honest, for the first 100 pages or so, I was disappointed with Gundar-Goshen’s writing style. I had begun reading her first novel because I had been so enthralled with her second novel, “Waking Lions” (English translation, 2016), which painted a detailed and believable picture of contemporary Israeli life, warts and all. By way of contrast, “One Night, Markovitch” seemed neither realistic nor believable; the ever-more complicated story is peppered with impossibly contrived twists of plot.
Nevertheless, as I moved further into the 375-page book, I began to realize that Gundar-Goshen was crafting her first novel in a mixture of fantasy and psychological realism – a style sometimes called “magical realism.” Slowly but steadily, through the magic of her brilliantly engaging writing, she nudged me towards a willing suspension of disbelief.
Why wasn’t it possible for one of her female characters to always smell of oranges and for the woman’s son, from the moment of his birth, to give off the aroma of peaches? And why couldn’t Markovitch be transformed into a hero-in-arms, along with a mythic triumvirate of drunkard, gambler and lame dreamer?
Employing many strategies from the perspective of magical realism, including laugh-out-loud comic relief, Gundar-Goshen has found her way into stinging criticism of a number of contemporary Israel’s sacred cows.
One of her more developed characters, for example, is repeatedly referred to by his title: “The deputy commander of the Irgun.” He is often toasted as the hero of heroes: husbands and wives are honored to give their sons his first name, Ephraim. Yet this same Ephraim, hero of heroes, happens to be carrying on an adulterous affair with the wife of his so-called “close friend,” an affair that produces a bastard son.
This same Ephraim appears to be most heroic when killing Arabs: “The deputy commander of the Irgun … then got up and went to do the only thing he knew how to do: kill Arabs. He killed them in the Galilee, he killed them in Hebron, and in the streets of Jerusalem, and in the alleyways of Jaffe … and they named babies after him before he turned thirty.”
In “One Night, Markovitch,” Gundar-Goshen uses a combination of fantasy and psychological depth to pave the way “for people who wanted to live in this world to pass through the minefield between the truth and the lie” – and, I might add, between the messy reality of the here and now and the unsullied purity of their dreams.
For the most part, Gundar-Goshen’s characters prefer to hold fast to their dreams.
In the end, through the magic of her realism and the realism of her magic, Gundar-Goshen challenges her fellow Israelis and all those who love the people of Israel, the land of Israel and the state of Israel to continue to transform an impossible dream into a vibrant though imperfect reality.
As she muses towards the end of “One Night, Markovitch”: “[The founders of the state of Israel] did impossible things so often that the remarkable became the usual for them. It is tempting, too tempting to say that their fall began with the end of the War of Independence. As if the anticipation of a homeland had the power to sustain and nourish them, a power that faded the moment their fervent desire became reality. As if unrealized desires can endure forever.”
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at email@example.com.