Monday, July 23, 2012

Second Person Singular

Second Person Singular
By Sayed Kashua

I ran across this title only a few months back over as The Boston Bibliophile. It was among a pile of books she has received and the cover caught my eye. How could it not? Look at that masterpiece! The designer should win some sort of award for that cover. Given the narrative, even more so. Upon reading the blurb, I was intrigued enough to put it near the top of my Kindle purchase list. And now I have finished reading it and have begun writing my blogpost on it.... but that's first person singular.


The story begins with an Arab lawyer (who remains unnamed throughout the novel) living in Jerusalem. He's got a perfect life with a sickeningly perfect family. He does his best to assimilate into Israel's fractured society and spends an inordinate amount of time cultivating his intellectual image via books, and cultural exchanges. He is determined not to look the fool in front of his peers and therefore visits his local bookstore regularly in order to consume the literature that he things a man of his stature should read not for any personal reason, but simply in order to say he has read them. Shallow depth, if I may coin a phrase.

It is on one of these visits to the bookstore that the lawyer purchases a used book only to find a note in his wife's handwriting inside the book. The note reads vaguely like a love letter and it is not addressed to the lawyer. The book was previously owned by someone named Yonatan (Jewish). What follows is a very personal account (and a very odd detective story) of how the note ended up in that novel, the lawyer's irrational reactions to the note and a very honest depiction of the human condition under stress.

But before we get into the thematic deconstruction, what struck me most about this novel was its depiction of life in Israel and the relationship between Jews and Arabs as well as the relationships between the ethnicities, gender and age groups. Kashua paints a fascinating picture of everyday life in Jerusalem. It is a Jerusalem populated by educated lawyers, preoccupied professors and ironic art students, none of which harbor any particular ill-will toward each other. While I cannot say for certain whether it is an accurate depiction of modern Jerusalem, it is the only novel I have to go on and I'll assume it is correct until I'm told otherwise. Kashua treats the reader to a surprisingly (to me, anyway) cohesive society which displays far more tolerance and acceptance than I could have ever expected. While religious fervor is hinted at in reference to those living in the Strip and the settlements, Jerusalem is depicted as a cosmopolitan city rife with cultural nuance. For this reason alone, Second Person Singular is worth a look.

Kashua's prose is versatile, shifting between two diametrically opposed voices with each a as well as skillfully oscillating his tone in reference to the lawyer who, as the novel progresses, increasingly falls off the emotional and psychological rails. Furthermore, Kashua toys with the chronological order of events within the narrative. While many readers find this tactic to be needlessly ambiguous, it adds a certain idiosyncratic appeal that places the reader square within the midst of the swirling narrative. The novel becomes an interactive experience whereby the reader is constantly reassessing their position, never allowed to find a comfortable place within the story.

Admittedly, Second Person Singular is not an easy read. It drags the reader through some serious emotional themes including the nature of apathy and the disappearance of the self. But the emotional theme that seems to tie the entire novel together (especially within the narrative concerning the lawyer) is the way in which jealousy can compromise a person's entire belief structure. Throughout the novel the lawyer struggles to maintain his well-crafted system of beliefs in the face of his jealousy. Principles and personal politics seem to fall by the wayside as the story progresses, leaving the reader to question how firm the lawyer is in his convictions and how much is simply a construct of his image. In fact, the lawyer's narrative often borders on the absurd.

This theme in particular was difficult for me since I have a profound lack of sympathy or empathy for those who suffer from jealous rages (no offense intended if you are one of those sufferers, but I just don't get it). For the record, I'm not a sociopath. I do, in fact, experience the full gamut of emotions, but I've never understood jealousy so I found it extremely difficult to identify with the lawyer's irrational and ofttimes inexplicable behavior in relation to the note. I do understand that jealousy, to a certain extent, is cultural. In Taiwan for example, jealousy is often seen as a visual display of love and devotion. One often sees men or women fly into jealous rages (sometimes in public) in order to express their love. Conversely, a lack of jealousy is often perceived as emotional ambivalence and often leads to behavior expressly designed to generate jealousy, which can only end badly, of course. I can only ascertain that Arab culture must have a similar relationship with jealousy given the lawyer's behavior throughout the novel.

Second Person Singular has a lot going for it. As a piece of literary fiction coming out of Israel it has a certain cultural currency for those who enjoy armchair tourism into worlds they may never visit. Furthermore, the intimate nature of the narrative allows the reader access to the psychological core of Jewish and Arab culture in Israel, which is worth something, I suspect. Is Second Person Singular worth the effort? Yes. Should you be rushing out to find a version in hardcover for your personal library? Probably not. Unless you, like me, really get suckered in by cool covers.

It really is a cool cover.


Jonathan Wilhoit said...

That really is a cool cover, though. And the premise of the book sounds like a winner, too. What intrigued me most, I gotta say, is the Taiwanese take on jealousy. Go figure, right?

Anyway, great post, as always.


Brian Joseph said...

The emotional themes that you mention actually make this one sound very interesting to me. Jealousy can be such a strong and powerful emotion and it can lead people to do all sorts of crazy things. Even if one has not experienced it, this emotion has such a profound effect on our world. For whatever reason I find it a fascinating subject.

The plot of randomly finding the note in a used book also sounds intriguing.

Jenny said...

I get suckered in by cool covers all the time. This one definitely falls under the cool cover genre. I'm not sure I could handle the slow pace, though.

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