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Fiction reviews


AB Yehoshua - Five Seasons; Enrico Palandri - Ages Apart

13 January 1989

Five Seasons
AB Yehoshua

Ages Apart
Enrico Palandri
Collins Harvill

Published in The Australian

Who knows what Israeli novelist AB Yehoshua's Five Seasons is like in the original Hebrew? In Hillel Halkin's English translation it is a competent portrait of a man trying to find meaning after the death of his wife. The plot moves ahead in millimetres, but maybe the language was sufficiently arresting in the original to make this acceptable.

In the English, however, politeness reigns - as if the translator wishes not to take any risks with the author's sensibilities. Or is this politeness a feature of the original too? Jewish literature sometimes does have a meticulous politeness. (It's usually a cover for glibness and cheek.) Again, who knows?

Few characters in this book are given names, apart from Molkho, the main one. His sons are described as "the high school student" and "the college student", and his daughter as "the soldier". Accordingly, just about everyone apart from Molkho remains largely unknown to us.

Molkho's forays into the interpersonal are planned with all the care and detail-tending of a journey to the Pole. His quest for post-marital fulfilment is so contrived and so apprehensive that it's a wonder he isn't even more depressed and lonely than he is. He finally goes on a European holiday with a woman lawyer of his own vintage (fiftyish), and the next hundred pages describe what doesn't happen. "The legal advisor" (as she is known) at one point sprains her ankle. There are exhaustive descriptions of Molkho binding the wound, putting her into bed, talking to her, giving her a pill, contemplating hopping in next to her...and eventually withdrawing. The next morning the whole agonising cycle begins again. What redeems these scenes - indeed the whole novel - is tremendous verisimilitude. Yehoshua leaves no detail out. It's either very inventive or very autobiographical.

The details of everyday life in Israel, too, will attract anyone with an interest in the place. The realism is complete. There is one Kafkaesque scene where Molkho (a Government bureaucrat) gets stranded in an Israeli village, to which he had been sent to inspect accounts. But even this, in the last analysis, is exactly the sort of thing that probably happens in that often chaotic country.

Overall, the story goes nowhere, in the most charming way. The five seasons of the title begin and end with autumn. You hope that by the second autumn Molkho will have gained something, or someone - but no. This is, no doubt, exactly what happens to millions of bereaved spouses the world over - but is it art? The cyclic "five seasons" idea seems wasted.

A better title may have been Fifty Something. It's too slow for my liking, but will suit other tastes.

A SLIGHTER VOLUME, in both size and value, is Enrico Palandri's Ages Apart - which is translated from the Italian. Set in Venice, it centres around a pair of teenagers, Nina and Luca - star-crossed lovers who are more into sex than soliloquies. Although they meet with parental opprobrium, this pair has the protection of Marco, a disgruntled intellectual who takes pity on them. (And who seems a thinly disguised version of the author.) It turns out that he also fancies Nina, and the story hinges on her gradual estrangement from Luca, and defection into the arms of the older man.

The moment Nina first acknowledges her attraction to Marco is handled rather well:

Again Luca bubbled over with laughter. A moment ago this laughter had been part of her own, the tone and rhythms fitting as if they had been made to measure; but this time it suddenly seemed ridiculous - the gaiety of a white wine, all froth and sparkle, seductive at the first sip and then disappointing. In a second the shrill elation died on her lips and in her eyes, and the bond of complicity with Luca snapped. With a sense of inner wonder, she suddenly recognised the same warm, frank gaze Marco had given her that morning long ago.

In addition to a love story, Ages Apart wants very much to be a scathing indictment of modern society. This is where it falls down rather badly. There is nothing wrong with an author seeking to expose the vacuity of fashionably liberal thinkers, or anyone else - but the best method, surely, is to give such characters enough rope. Authorially describing Luca's teacher as having a "feeble-minded histrionic style", and his headmaster as a "victim of an excess of senile vanity", is less effective than putting words in their mouths which convey the same points. It's rather fun to see an author sink the boot into his own characters in this way - presumably they caricature people he knows - but it's still all wrong.

Ages Apart also has an excess of fruity language. The author has clearly never had an affair with a teenage girl, or he wouldn't have...

 ...imagined falling into Nina's eyes, as when the night threw open the doors of the universe and called him to its infinite emptiness, to its infinite fear. But he was not afraid, and that infinite space was not emptiness but Nina: her lips, her name, her soul. In the half-light their eyes shone together closely, their breaths mingled, and in an embrace they touched the miracle of existence.

Enrico Palandri is only 33. Another five years should knock some sense into him.

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