Thanks to the Easter holidays (bliss), I’ve just managed to start and finish Ayelet Gundar-Goshen‘s debut novel One Night, Markovitch (2012, published in English by Pushkin Press in 2015). This was of course also thanks to Gundar-Goshen’s very readable writing. The Amazon reviews of this book are, by the way, rather scathing. Although it didn’t quite live up to its excellent first impressions, I still think it’s a lovely novel and well worth a read.
Despite its name, One Night, Markovitch, features a bunch of eccentric characters living in a small, gossipy village whose interwoven story we get to know. Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg are two Jewish blokes living in Palestine in what is presumably the 1930s. The men have similar interests – milky-white boobs, vaginas that smell of fruit, and other female body-parts – but couldn’t be more different. Feinberg is the one gets (all) the ladies: he’s imposing, charismatic, and
first of all, a mustache. Not blue eyes, not bushy eyebrows, not sharp teeth. Zeev Feinberg’s mustache was famous in the entire area, and, some said, in the entire country. When an Irgun member returned from a trip to the south, he talked about “the blushing girl who asked whether the sultan with the mustache was still with us”.
Poor Markovitch is the polar opposite:
He was, you might say, gloriously average. Moreover, Yaacov Markovitch’s face was remarkably free of distinguishing features. So much so that your eyes could not linger on him, but slipped onward to other objects.
His unremarkable presence serves him well as an arms smuggler, whereas Feinberg’s womanising leads him into so much trouble with a local man called Avraham Mandelbaum, a well-know Arab killer and a generally dangerous man, that the mates decide to escape his temper to Europe, and on top of that return with Jewish wives. From what I can gather, their expedition was a part of a larger Jewish immigration to what was still Palestine: sham marriages with Palestinian residents would be organised to allow women to move to the area.
Markovitch and Feinberg travel on a ship with other men, including their friend, the deputy commander of the Irgun, and once in Europe immediately wed the women assigned to them. The plan is to divorce as soon as they reach the holy land, but Markovitch, the plainest of them all, is coupled with the most beautiful of them all, Bella Zeigerman. And poor Markovitch, he just can’t, won’t, let go of her, no matter how much she hates him and how cold (literally) his house becomes when she’s forced to move into it. She even leaves him for a year to live with her favourite poet in Tel Aviv, but he won’t divorce her.
So much of One Night, Markovitch, revolves around the battle of wills between women and men who hurt and exhaust each other and whose moments of happiness are fleeting and often based on deceit or self-deceit. Feinberg has his own girlfriend and later wife, Sonya, who lets off an enticing scent of oranges, and waits for him to return from Europe at the beach, cursing bitterly him running off:
“I hope that one one of these [crabs] grabs your penis in its claws… When I get through with you, you’ll walk on your side, like them, for the rest of your life.”
And then there are Avraham and Rachel Mandelbaum, the latter unable to shake off her traumatising European past despite her insistence to not speak any German, only Hebrew. The final main character is the suffering deputy commander of the Irgun, who is hopelessly in love with Sonya and her scent.
With One Night, Markovitch, I was really expecting to read a story about these people, who they are, where they come from, what their relationships with each other are. Gundar-Goshen’s book is of course about these people, but I see it first and foremost as a family saga, even if not all the main characters are related by blood. The author has divided the book into three parts, before, during, and after, and expands her story from these five protagonists to cover their adventures in war against the Palestinians and in post-World War II Europe, to family life and a shift of focus to their children. Gundar-Goshen is without a doubt an excellent writer, but I’m not sure I agreed entirely with this shift. She makes such a good case for her five protagonists in the opening paragraphs and chapters of her book that really I wanted to know more about them focus entirely on them. The children just can’t compete with their parents.
The expanding of the focus allows Gundar-Goshen to also cover the stages of Israel’s battle for independence. I was actually initially under the false impression that the story was taking place in the 1970s, mainly because of Feinberg’s mustache! She does write about fighting the Palestinians, or “crushing their skulls”, but in all honesty they hardly feature in the book, if not on a meta level (i.e. could the characters’ relationships with each other be interpreted as reflecting the ongoing conflicts in the area). I take this as another sign of her story being first and foremost a family saga.
To reflect the three-part structure of the book, where we end up is really quite far from where we started with that engaging first sentence, which, by the way, is an excellent example of setting the scene:
Yaacov Markovitch wasn’t ugly.
There is no doubt about Gundar-Goshen’s ability to keep the reader wanting more. However, as the book went on I felt that she’d got a bit lost, or that there was really too much to say to make it all work for one book and she ran out of steam. Perhaps this was only due to my fondness towards the first third of the novel and its focus, but I think might have been wiser to keep the story more compact. Th first is where I feel she also does her best writing:
They boarded the ship four days later. The sea was calm and the sunset banal. Yaacov Markovitch was slightly disappointed. He was a practical man, not a sentimental fool, and yet he harbored the hope that on the first day of their journey the forces of nature would rally to present an opening scene worth noting. A flock of storks would hover in the sky, a slippery dolphin would approach the shore, the dying sun would have a unique hue. Because, after all, this was not simply a voyage to Europe; this was the beginning of his life’s journey. From the day he was born, Yaacov Markovitch hadfelt he was nthing more than a minor character in other people’s stories, a sub-plot, a distant moon that received its light from a sun. He was the son of his parents and the subordinate of his squad commander and the friend of Zeev Feinberg. For the first time in his life he felt that he, Yaacov Markovitch, was living a life worth telling about. Everything that had happened until now had been merely a sketch, the midless scribbling of an artist a moment before he sits down purposefully at his easel. That was why he no longer thought about his house in the village and did not miss the people who lived there, sorry only that, in his headlong flight, he had left behind the writings of Jabotinsky, and he also felt sorry for the pigeons.*
(*which he likes to feed!)
This is wonderful prose, and thanks for that naturally also go to the book’s translator, Sondra Silverston.
Although the book is marketed as “very funny”, there’s much sadness in One Night, Markovitch, particularly after the cheery (lots of boobs and vaginas) start. And yet I wouldn’t say that it leaves you feeling sad or upset. If anything, her characters are great survivors who persist in an environment that is hostile to them, whether it’s the dusty soil killed by the scorching sun or people unable to give to them what they want. One Night, Markovitch is a great story, even if it wasn’t exactly the one I wanted to read!
Gundar-Goshen’s second novel, Waking Lions, has only just come out in English also from Pushkin Press. She talks about it in this BBC Open Book podcast.
One Night, Markovitch reviews
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen was born in Israel in 1982 and holds an MA in Clinical Psychology from Tel Aviv University. Her film scripts have won prizes at international festivals, including the Berlin Today Award and the New York City Short Film Festival Award. Her debut novel One Night, Markovitch won the Sapir Prize for best debut and is being translated into five languages. (Source: http://pushkinpress.com/author/ayelet-gundar-goshen/)