In his intricately woven novel Mr. Mani, A.B. Yehoshua tangles together the complexities of Jewish history and political Zionism with a symbolic and confounding exploration of identity, storytelling, and sacrifice. Divided into five, one-sided conversations in reverse chronological order, the work complicates the reading experience in a way that deepens its metaphorical salience. A close analysis of the third conversation demonstrates the effect of the book’s triangular structure, as the plot is constantly poised in a three-part focus between the speaker, the interlocutor, and the member(s) of the Mani family. Lieutenant Ivor Stephen Horowitz’s fixations and anxieties mediate the reader’s reception of the mysteriously political Yosef Mani, but this dynamic character illustration relies just as deeply upon the silent but ever present Colonel Michael Woodhouse, whose half of the conversation is “missing” (149). Upon examining the representative roles played by both the speaker and the interlocutor in molding Mr. Mani, the chapter’s resonance with greater themes of the novel becomes especially clear. In particular, the third conversation is closely intertwined with the novel’s meditation on the complicated place of Jerusalem in the Jewish consciousness.
Lieutenant Ivor Horowitz is a British Jew who struggles to balance his identities, as illustrated through his over-insistence on his British loyalty. Speaking to the Colonel, his superior, Horowitz defends his impartiality in his judgment of the Mani case, despite his being a fellow Jew. He makes a point to dismiss the anti-Semitism he faces from the British army as natural; “[It] means nothing to me and is something I can shrug off quite coolly,” he asserts (159). Horowitz distances himself from the Jewish population of Palestine and adopts reverberations of anti-Semitic rhetoric: “As usual, sir, the Jews have little to offer except themselves” (151). These renunciations, or perhaps discrediting, of his Jewish loyalty are magnified by Horowitz’s over-insistence of his undying devotion to the British cause, expressing deep respect for even the officers who make anti-Semitic remarks. As the orator of the story, Horowitz’s anxiety about his own identity and others’ perception of it filters his portrayal of Yosef Mani. One instance of this is Ivor’s description of Yosef’s father, Moses, who received the British passport that ultimately became the precedent for his son’s assumed death penalty.
“It was not a common practice of British consuls to grant British nationality to children for being adorable… Be that as a it may, however, the boy was pleased as punch to be a British subject and took his gift-wrapped passport with him everywhere, reciting Byron and Shelley and retelling The Canterbury Tales amid the pestilent poverty of this city… The consul had the idea of finding him a British wife to make him more English than ever. They had a baby girl who died directly after childbirth, and then a second girl who died, and then a boy, all because of incompatible blood… [Our defendant] seemed of a mind to die too; but this time the Manis put their foot down; they fought day and night to save him until he had no choice but to live” (166).
This British passport continues to frequent Horowitz’s tale. It is hidden under Yosef Mani’s mattress – even sown into it at one point – and later resides in the pocket of his father’s overcoat when Yosef first offers himself as an interpreter for the British army. In his descriptions of Moses and Yosef, Horowitz projects his own anxieties about the tensions between his British and Jewish identity. The above passage stresses how artificial, unnatural, arbitrary, and forced Moses Mani’s British nationality is. This union of Jewish and British identity, as symbolized in Moses’s marriage to a British woman, produces an incompatibility, a destiny of death and sacrifice. Readers can identify the parallels between Moses’s artificial British-ness and Horowitz’s over-insistence on his British loyalty.
This parallel is not simply a crafty design of the author. Because the story is designed and performed by Horowitz, the identity of Mr. Mani is produced by the relationship between the speaker and the interlocutor. By depicting Moses Mani’s British subjectivity as a damning incompatibility, Horowitz frames the story of Yosef Mani as a man who, ever since birth, has been sentenced to death. In Horowitz’s narrative, this inevitability of death is the “precedent” for planting Mani’s political “seed,” which leads to his “treachery” and stubborn resolve to incite Arab resistance against the Zionist project in the face of his own death sentence. “He’s as good as dead already, sir,” Ivor says. Only through this lens can we understand Horowitz’s fixation on decoding Yosef Mani’s obsession with politics, or what Horowitz defines as an “autosuggestion” (195). In crafting and reciting Mani’s story to the Colonel, Ivor works to circumvent Yosef’s doomed fate as an internal response to his own identity struggle and anxious obsession with thwarting Mani’s self-sacrifice—a reoccurring motif throughout the other four narratives within the novel.
Despite his lack of contribution to the dialogue provided, Colonel Michael Woodhouse plays a significant role in shaping the depiction of Yosef Mani’s life and identity. By forcing the reader to fill in the conversational gaps, A.B. Yehoshua in a way positions the reader as the interlocutor with Ivor Horowitz. Without the Colonel’s explicit articulation of his impressions of the situation, we become exceedingly conscious of our overwhelming reliance on Horowitz as storyteller. In this way, Woodhouse acts on behalf of the reader. Just when the reader becomes most engrossed in the beautifully written story of Yosef Mani, Horowitz apologizes for taking his “literary” “poetic license” “too far” (182). This startling reminder of the novel’s framing context, implicitly due to the Colonel’s objections or challenges, makes obvious the creatively constructed and performative quality of Horowitz’s narration. While it is true that the Colonel, or perhaps the absence of his part of the conversation, forces a greater consciousness and a more critical perspective of the reader, he also embodies his own dynamic character. The Colonel is a representative of the British aristocracy, who fights for the British colonial project. In his analysis of Mr. Mani, Adam Katz describes the triangular conversation between speaker, interlocutor, and Mani:
“I have been suggesting that each Mani operates as a kind of sacred center, from which violence and freedom, sacrifice and revelation, both emanate. Furthermore, the effects, and even the reality, of the sacred center depend upon the reception and response of the fascinated spectator, and, in turn, upon that spectator’s relationship to an individual who is implicitly representative of a larger, ‘mainstream’ audience.”
As a representative of the “mainstream,” the Colonel is changed by Horowitz’s story. As Ivor’s superior, he is implicated in the final judgment, the decision to intervene in Mr. Mani’s fated death. He began as “the wounded lion” and was eventually so transformed by Horowitz’s literary masterpiece that he succumbed to providing the exact loophole that Ivor had implanted from the very start of his “hearing–” revoking Mani’s British citizenship, the same artificial, forced, and “incompatible” British citizenship that was bestowed to his father (198). Through the mediating structure of the conversation and in the actual plot of the chapter, Ivor and the Colonel possess manipulative control over Mr. Mani’s identity.
For Horowitz and Woodhouse, banishing Mani from Jerusalem offered a method to thwart Yosef’s self-sacrificing impulse for the sake of political justice. But, ironically, the reader is first introduced to Yosef in the preceding chapter, which takes place after his expulsion from the Holy Land. Exiled in Crete, Yosef dies almost immediately after readers first meet him. So, while the resolution of the third conversation could be seen as optimistic, readers understand that Yosef is, in fact, still given a death sentence with his seemingly generous banishment. The fact that Mani’s death occurs outside of Jerusalem, though, must not be dismissed. The third chapter begins and ends with visions of Greece. Horowitz likens Jerusalem to southern Peloponnese, only to soon admit, “I’m sorry to say, sir, that I’ve never been to Greece, but those who have speak of a resemblance, and I’m merely passing on their judgment” (152). In this way, even the conception of space is endowed with agency. Similarly, Jerusalem is presented as an agent both as an “idea” and a concrete place. Ivor expresses the disjointedness between these two manifestations of Jerusalem, as he explains, “Even if I have a warm place for this town in my heart, it’s for the idea of it, not the reality. It’s really quite extraordinary, sir, how, although I’ve been here for several months, the idea and the reality remain entirely separate” (165). Different relationships to and effects of the “idea” of Jerusalem weave throughout all of the stories in the novel. Impulses of return, rejection, guilt, sexual desire, violence, salvation, and self-sacrifice all appear as manifestations of Jerusalem’s force on the Jewish people throughout history. In Mr. Mani, Jerusalem is the locus of flourishing multicultural exchange, an “eternal battlefield,” and a city that all Jews take “wherever they go” (194, 165).
The triangular conversation between the speaker, interlocutor, and Mr. Mani produces a complicated, nuanced reading experience that forces one to be conscious of the mediation of identity and the transformative effect of creative storytelling. In the third conversation of Mr. Mani, the identity of Yosef Mani is molded by the relationship between Horowitz and the Colonel, who create, attempt to thwart, and ultimately satisfy Mani’s political impulse for self-sacrifice. Situated in the context of the other chapters, Yosef Mani’s story ties together the complexities of identity and sacrifice with Yehoshua’s meditation on the agency of Jerusalem over Jewish consciousness and history.
By Lucille Marshall
Written for New Wave in Israeli Literature with Professor Alan Mintz at the Jewish Theological Seminary
Katz, Adam. “The Originary Scene, Sacrifice, and the Politics of Normalization in A.B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani.” Katz. Quinnipiac University, 2001. Web.
Yehoshua, Abraham B. Mr. Mani. Trans. Hillel Halkin. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1993. Print.