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Before Europe orientalized its eastern colonies, the Jew orientalized himself. Living in exile — amid the empires of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, and the four Islamic caliphates — he yearned for Zion: the homeland forever lost, the cradle of an identity forever idealized. “My heart is in the East — / And I am at the edge of the West” is how the predicament was put by Yehudah Ha-Levi, who wrote in Hebrew in twelfth-century Muslim Spain about Jerusalem under the yoke of the Crusaders. The poem, among the most famous in the Jewish canon, proceeds by questions —

How can I possibly taste what I eat?

How could it please me?

How can I keep my promise

or ever fulfill my vow,

when Zion is held by Edom

and I am bound by Arabia’s chains?

 — all of which raise the essential Jewish question: What does it mean to esteem that which you don’t, or only barely, know? Or, phrased another way: What happens when Zion doesn’t live up to its poem?

“#356 Palm,” by Tokihiro Sato. Courtesy the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco

“#356 Palm,” by Tokihiro Sato. Courtesy the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco

In 1140, after the death of his wife, the sixtysomething-year-old Ha-Levi retired from his medical practice and sailed for Egypt, his people’s former house of bondage. From there, according to legend, he retraced the route of the Exodus, to the foot of the ruined Temple in Jerusalem, where he was trampled to death by an Arab on horseback. And so the quest to experience a metaphor became a metaphor itself: the Jew finally arrives in the land he’s always dreamed of, and promptly perishes. Is there any better summary of the anxieties of Zionism? Is there any better joke?

Paradox, futility, the veil dance between the imaginary and the actual, homesickness for a foreign or nonexistent home: these are the themes of Yoel Hoffmann, the greatest living writer in Israel — a country that appears in his work as a strange, vagabond mind-state bordered, roughly, by Transylvania, China, and Japan. Hoffmann was born in Transylvania, in 1937, and though he arrived in Mandate Palestine the following year, his true Zion lay farther east. In the 1960s, he made his pilgrimage. Even in Kyoto, where he studied at a Zen Buddhist monastery and obtained his doctorate at the city’s university, he longed for Kyoto. On returning to Israel, he taught East Asian studies at the University of Haifa and translated texts from Chinese and Japanese into Hebrew and English, including the koans of Masters Joshu and Kido and a landmark volume of jisei, the last verses monks write before dying or committing ritual suicide.

Hoffmann found his way to fiction only after fifty, publishing a succession of enigmatically nostalgic texts that sought to revive the mystical literature of European Jewry through the poetry and parables of Zen. In Hoffmann’s hands, these two traditions, separated by alphabets, languages, continents, and centuries, seem kindred if not continuous: both are full of anecdotes featuring pious figures — barefoot monks, bearded rabbis — who ask or are asked questions to which the only answer is a slap, a laugh, or a nonsense retort intended to reorient the senses.

Here’s an episode from Hoffmann’s translation of Joshu (a.k.a. Zhaozhou Congshen), the ninth-century Zen master of Bailin, China:

A monk asked, “Why is it that an outsider is not allowed to take over?”

Joshu said, “Who are you?”

The monk said, “Enan.”

Joshu said, “What is your question?”

Enan asked, “Why is it that an outsider is not allowed to take over?”

Joshu patted his head.

Joshu’s point seems to be that the very awareness of a hierarchy, in which Enan is a disciple and Joshu a master, will prevent Enan from becoming a master himself. This lesson acquires an explicitly moral aspect in the Hasidic lore of eighteenth-century Russia:

The people of a certain city begged the Baal Shem Tov to force his disciple Yehiel Mikhal to accept the position of rabbi, which they had offered him. The Baal Shem Tov ordered him to accept, but he persisted in his refusal. “If you don’t obey me,” said the Master, “you will lose this world and the next world too.” “Even if I lose both worlds,” his disciple answered, “I won’t accept what does not befit me.” “Then take my blessing instead,” the Master said, “because you have resisted temptation.”

Both anecdotes frustrate commentary — the Buddhist story by embracing emptiness, the Hasidic by embracing goodness, humility, God. Hoffmann uses the same rhetoric, devoid of any instructional purpose, to write novels — or what his publishers insist on calling novels, though the ten volumes that have appeared to date read more like excavated fragments of a scrambled canon, a literature compiled from a Europe that Hoffmann never experienced and an Asia that was never his birthright. His fiction retains all the inconsistency, and therefore all the authority, of the religious texts on which they’re based: references to the Nazi camps suddenly break off, as if to indicate lacunae; memories of geishas recur, but with conflicting details. Such glitches come to seem like sites of hermetic meaning available only to the adept.

Take this early chapter from Hoffmann’s latest book, Moods (New Directions, $15.95), in the reverentially irreverent translation of the poet Peter Cole (whose rendition of Ha-Levi is quoted above):

I remember things that happened in an empty building (which is to say, one they hadn’t yet finished building) in Ramat Gan, in the fifties.

Then too (as now) legs were the principal thing. The world was full of legs of all sorts and there was movement in space. Someone — Ezra Danischevsky — said to me once: I want to be an elevator repairman (you can imagine the motion and its various directions).

In that (empty) building, a woman who’s now seventy-four (if she’s not dead) took off her dress.

In the next chapter Hoffmann narrates an encounter between a man, “most likely” named Nehemiah, and a French prostitute in a basement apartment in Paris. Later, he admits: “I too (Yoel Hoffmann, that is) once went like that down steps to a place where a French woman waited.” Subsequent sections concern Hoffmann’s father’s Schaffhausen watch (“which wasn’t removed even when he fell into a coma”) and his aunt Edith (whose final word was noch, German for “another”). It’s only nine chapters in that Nehemiah returns, or is explained:

I could write about how the Bible that the principal gave me at the end of eighth grade saved my life (it was in the pocket of my army vest and the bullet went into it up to the Book of Nehemiah) or, how, as though in an American movie, I went to the wedding of a girl I was in love with once and at the last minute etcetera. Which is to say, a bona fide story with plot twists and intrigue and an ending cut off like a salami (to keep it modern).

Hoffmann, of course, won’t write anything like that story; instead he discusses psychoanalysis, one hand clapping, physics, and Gaza. Meanwhile, the connections that have been gestured at — between Nehemiah the prophet and Nehemiah as Hoffmann; between the woman in Ramat Gan and the woman in Paris; between the dying father’s watch and the dying aunt’s noch; and between the elevator and the stairs and the stand-alone legs and the circumcised salami — remain suspended, uninterpretable: as present through their absence as Zion is in Israel.

Alaa Al Aswany, the perennially best-selling and periodically censored Egyptian novelist, also writes for and about a fantasy country — namely, Egypt, or an Egypt that reads freely, an Egypt that accepts critique as something other than a pretext for imprisonment or torture. His novels, three of which have been translated into English, are national epics of the intimate: they remind their readers that every household hosts its own incarnations of fundamentalism, despotism, corruption, and graft.

His best novel, The Yacoubian Building (2002 in Arabic, 2004 in English), is as capacious as its eponym, and tenanted by a cross-purposed cross section of Cairene society: the wealthy (a philanthropist who’s also a drug dealer) and the poor (the doorman’s militant son), the intellectual (a homosexual Francophile) and the laborer (a crook seeking legitimacy as a crooked shopkeeper). Al Aswany previously worked as a dentist — his office was in the actual Yacoubian Building — and his next novel, Chicago (2007 in Arabic and English), is an acerbic tribute to the city where he trained. Another vast, mad cast — now of Egyptian students at the University of Illinois — negotiates post-9/11 racial profiling, violent policing, and other urban perversions of homeland security, all the while informing on immigrant Copts for the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate and discriminating against one another for having premarital sex.

British tourists in Giza, 1874 © Illustrated London News Ltd./Mary Evans Picture Library

British tourists in Giza, 1874 © Illustrated London News Ltd./Mary Evans Picture Library

So far, so legible: two novels about present-day Egypt, one set in Cairo, the other in the exchange-program Midwest. Now, with The Automobile Club of Egypt (Knopf, $27.95), Al Aswany digs into the past — specifically into the fin-de-siècle ineptitude of Ottoman rule, during which the real power in Egypt was Britain. Al Aswany’s Automobile Club — a classy, British-run, class-conscious facility that ensured only foreigners were licensed to drive in Egypt, and that when they did they were stoned on hash if not also drunk — provides a comfy leather armchair from which to observe the author’s method. As in The Yacoubian Building, a venerable institution founded by or associated with the colonizers becomes a stage for the colonized. Characters pass in and out — some through the front door, some through the service entrance — chattering about Big Ideas (love, lust, death, enfranchisement) while embodying them in small foibles. James Wright, the director of the club, has an affair with Odette, a textile tycoon’s daughter whose socialism he accepts only as style, or as an attribute of her youth, or of her Judaism. Rikabi the chef, Bahr the barman, Shakir the maître d’, and Yusuf Tarboosh the casino manager are as proud of serving the pale-faced elite as they are of padding their bills. When it’s time to complain about their pensions, or the pashas, or the bribes extorted by Alku — the Nubian chamberlain to the king, who gambles away his reign at the club — they gather at the neighboring Servants’ Café and abuse its waitstaff and management.

Two families hold the plotlines together, and narrate them too: the Hamamas, who own a grocery, and the Gaafars, a prominent Upper Egyptian clan forced by a flailing economy to sell their land and move to Cairo. There, the Gaafar patriarch, Abd el-Aziz, finds employment as a club porter, is beaten after accidentally incurring the wrath of Alku, and dies — either from the beating or from the shame of it. Instead of compensating his family, the Automobile Club employs his sons, the dim-witted weight lifter Mahmud and Kamel, a Red revolutionary and part-time law student. Al Aswany hitches the turmoil that follows the death of their father to the monarchy’s decline, and this doubling steers the action of the novel. In the absence of civic comity, there’s family, and in the absence of family, there are alternate ties that bind: nationalist fronts, Communist cadres, Islamist cells, organized crime.

Kamel owes his own politicization to his boss — James Wright — a man convinced that “Egyptians are lazy, dirty, and liars too,” whose chief concern is “how much longer Britain will consider it a duty to bring civilization to the barbarians.” Between law seminars and shifts at the club, Kamel tutors Wright’s actress daughter in Arabic, and when Wright suspects that they’ve fallen in love, he calls Kamel in for an audience. He claims to disapprove of the dalliance because of Kamel’s race, though the reader is privy to another motive: the civilized Wright has been playing pimp, trying to pawn his expensive Mitsy off on His Majesty. Kamel leaves Wright’s office primed for revenge. The next meeting he attends is of the nascent Wafd party — all-Egyptian, unofficial, underground. On the agenda is a discussion of “the war against the independent trade unions being waged by the palace, the English, the minority capitalist parties, and the Muslim Brotherhood.” Kamel’s heart is in Upper Egypt, but soon he’s at the edge of Cairo, being interrogated in jail. How can he possibly taste what he eats? How could it please him?

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