Analysis of A. B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani

Mr. Mani is the masterwork of the 20th-century author A. B. Yehoshua (1936–2022), an Israeli novelist considered the most outstanding literary figure of his generation. The author’s fourth novel, Mr. Mani achieved instant acclaim upon publication. A rich, dense narrative whose goal is to understand the present by exploring modern Jewish history, this profound novel addresses such complex issues as identity, the diaspora, Jewish patrimony, the meaning of history, and the significance of Israel. Perhaps the most controversial and challenging subject of the novel is the possibility of a historical unconscious that travels from generation to generation, which preserves memories and patterns in a way that permits a continuous, fl owing conversation between past and present.

Central to this ambitious novel is its structure. It comprises five narratives, each of which is told from a different perspective. There are also five different historical periods representing various crossroads in the history of the modern Jewish people. Organized as a series of one-sided conversations or monologues, each chapter is written in the Hebrew style of its time, reflecting the multitudinous cultural influences that have shaped the Jewish people. Each conversation goes back further in time, exploring individual Mani family dramas against the backdrop of significant historical events, ending in 1848, which, Yeshohua suggests, was the beginning of the story of modern Jews. With the exception of the last book, the speakers are not members of the Mani family, but are drawn into the Mani orbit—we explore the Mani family through the perspective of outsiders, who find in the Manis something special, important, and even revelatory.

AB Yehoshua. Source: The Times of Israel

The speakers include a contemporary Israeli woman at a kibbutz in the Negev desert, a Nazi solder in Crete, a British-Jewish soldier in Palestine, a Jewish doctor in Galicia (Poland), and a Jewish merchant in Athens. The first narrative is set in 1982, at the time of the Lebanon war, and features the vibrant voice of Hagar Shiloh, a young student, in conversation with her mother. Hagar resists her mother’s rational interpretations of her mysterious meeting with a despondent Gavriel Mani, the grandfather of her unborn child. It is significant that Gavriel, whom Hagar has rescued from suicide, relocates from Israel to the Negev to be with his grandson; this suggests that the Mani family is now taking its place as part of contemporary Israeli life. In bearing Gavriel’s grandson, Hagar assures the continuation of the Mani family line, initiating a pattern repeated in all five sections, namely, the near-miraculous survival of each generation’s Mr. Mani.

The second narrative is also set during World War II in Crete. The narrator is Egon Bruner, a Nazi officer who encounters Efrayhim Mani, the father of Gavriel. Convinced Greece is the spiritual homeland of Germany, Bruner is disconcerted by Mr. Mani’s occupation as a tour guide and by his insistence that he can cancel his Jewishness and thereby avoid persecution as an undesirable minority in a hostile war area. Here Yehoshua raises the issue of Jewish identity, suggesting that a Jew is always free to choose his Jewishness; additionally, the novel also suggests that Egon himself could cancel his Nazi identity—indeed, that the Nazis could cancel the Holocaust itself. Despite the adversarial nature of the conversation of the subtle Efrayhim and the baffl ed Egon, it is Efrayhim who points to the idea of a common humanity, a message that alters Egon’s previous rigidity and allows Efrayhim to survive by escaping in the nick of time to Jerusalem.

The third narrative, set at the end of World War I, consists of a conversation conducted by Stephen Horowitz, a Jew of English nationality serving as a lawyer in the British forces occupying Palestine. This final narrative is the centerpiece of the novel. Here Horowitz rescues Yosef Mani, the father of Efrayhim. Mani is on trial for selling secret documents to the Germans in exchange for the opportunity to try to reconcile the various factions in the area. An eccentric figure who is ahead of his time in advancing notions of multiculturalism, Yosef finds in Horowitz an unlikely ally—it is the English Zionist who manages to save him from certain death. The emergence of Zionism in this chapter makes it the most significant narrative in the novel— the situation of Yosef Mani is placed at a crucial junction in modern history, namely, the creation of the Balfour Declaration, which authorized a homeland for Jews in Palestine.

Although not set in wartime, the fourth chapter strongly references World War II. Transpiring in 1899, the conversation is conducted by Dr. Efrayhim Shapiro, a Polish pediatrician and Ashkenazic Jew. It is he who reveals the story of Yosef’s father, Moshe Mani. A gynecologist who establishes a hospital in Jerusalem in which women from all nationalities gave birth under enlightened conditions, Moshe falls in love with Dr. Shapiro’s sister Linka, whose return to Europe plunges him into despair and precipitates his suicide. While Dr. Shapiro suggests Yosef was the victim of some innate tendency to self-destruction that seems to be a part of the Mani psyche, it is also possible to interpret Yosef’s gesture as a product of a prescient despair that anticipates Linka’s death in the Holocaust.

The final chapter is narrated by Avraham Mani, who seeks counsel from Rabbi Haddaya, a figure of godlike authority. Avraham confesses that he murdered his own son, a devoted follower of the infirm rabbi. Avraham comes to the rabbi to find out if, having murdered his increasingly unstable son and impregnated his son’s wife, he should punish himself by taking his own life. The death of the rabbi during this conversation leaves Avraham free to decide this matter for himself and indicates that he succeeds not only in continuing the Mani family line but in freeing himself from repressive religious authority. It is significant that the year in the novel is 1848, a year of revolutions in Europe that led to the establishment of many modern nations. By setting the novel at this time, the author suggests that the Mani family began its modern incarnation here, which will culminate in the founding of Israel exactly one hundred years later.

A novel about generations and the principle of generation, Mr. Mani concerns the survival of the Mani family tree despite considerable adversity. Barely surviving, each Mani family member represents the triumph of generative over disorderly and chaotic forces that come either from within or from the outside world. The narrative entertains ideas of destiny, mystical design, or providence that reach beyond the bounds of conventional realism. Related to this theme is that of the power of unconscious material to travel generationally from father to son, so that the Mani family eventually seems to share one large collective unconscious that contains recurring patterns that point to life and death, hope and despair.

The elaborate structure of Mr. Mani also suggests that the individual exists within a deep historical and family context that resonates backward as well as forward. Each generation of the Mani family adds to the historical layers that themselves enrich and inform the identity of future family members. At the same time that the novel affirms Yehoshua’s Zionist convictions, however, his liberal political perspective points to an Israel that continually interacts with other peoples, including Europeans, European Jews, and Arabs—all of whom are drawn into the circle of the Mani family and are part of its story. Within this broad multicultural context, Mr. Mani offers a definition of modern Israel as not an essentially religious entity, but a cultural and historical nation, belonging to a time and place, and constituting a people.

Cohen, Joseph. Voices of Israel: Essays on and Interviews with Yehuda Amichai, A. B. Yehoshua, T. Carmi, Aharon Appelfeld, and Amos Oz. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.
Hakak, Lev. Equivocal Dreams: Studies in Modern Hebrew Literature. Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav, 1993.
Seh-Lavan, Yosef. A. B. Yehoshua. Tel Aviv: Hotsaat Or-am, 1978.
Yehoshua, A. B. The Lover. Translated by Philip Simpson. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977.
———. A Woman in Jerusalem. Translated by Hillel Halkin. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2006

Categories: Israeli Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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