A woman in her forties is a victim of a suicide bombing at a Jerusalem market. Her body lies nameless in a hospital morgue. She had apparently worked as a cleaning woman at a bakery, but there is no record of her employment. When a Jerusalem daily accuses the bakery of "gross negligence and inhumanity toward an employee," the bakery’s owner, overwhelmed by guilt, entrusts the task of identifying and burying the victim to a human resources man. This man is at first reluctant to take on the job, but as the facts of the woman’s life take shape—she was an engineer from the former Soviet Union, a non-Jew on a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and, judging by an early photograph, beautiful—he yields to feelings of regret, atonement, and even love.At once profoundly serious and highly entertaining, A. B. Yehoshua astonishes us with his masterly, often unexpected turns in the story and with his ability to get under the skin and into the soul of Israel today.
EVEN THOUGH the manager of the human resources division had not sought such a mission, now, in the softly radiant morning, he grasped its unexpected significance. The minute the extraordinary request of the old woman who stood in her monk's robe by the dying fire was translated and explained to him, he felt a sudden lifting of his spirits, and Jerusalem, the shabby, suffering city he had left just a week ago, was once more bathed in a glow of importance, as it had been in his childhood.
AND YET the origins of his unusual mission lay in a simple clerical error brought to the company’s attention by the editor of a local Jerusalem weekly, an error that could have been dealt with by any reasonable excuse and brief apology. However, fearing that such an apology— which might indeed have laid the matter to rest— would be deemed inadequate, the stubborn eighty-seven-year-old owner of the company had demanded a more tangible expression of regret from himself and his staff, a clearly defined gesture such as the one that had resulted in this journey to a distant land.
What had upset the old man so? Where had the almost religious impulse that drove him come from? Could it have been inspired by the grim times that the country, and above all Jerusalem, were going through, which he had weathered unharmed; so that his financial success, as other businesses foundered, called for vigilance in warding off the public criticism that now, ironically, was about to be aired in newsprint of which he himself was the supplier? Not that the reporter whose scathing feature article would break the story— a political radical and eternal doctoral candidate with the restraint of a bull in this intimate china shop of a city— was aware of all this when he wrote the piece, or he would have toned it down. Yet it was the paper’s editor and publisher, loath to ruin a colleague’s weekend with an unpleasant surprise that might spoil their business relations, who had decided, after taking a look at the story and its accompanying photograph of the torn, bloodstained pay stub found in the murdered woman’s shopping bag, to let the old man respond in the same issue.
Nor was it really such a shocking exposé. Nevertheless, at a time when pedestrians were routinely exploding in the streets, troubled consciences turned up in the oddest places. And so at the end of that particular workday, when the human resources manager, having promised his ex-wife that he would leave the office on time to be with their only daughter, had tried to evade the owner’s summons, the old man’s veteran office manager had refused to let him. Sensing her boss’s agitation, she’d hastened to advise the resource manager to put his family duties aside.
ON THE WHOLE, relations between the two men were good. They had been so ever since the resource manager, then in the sales division, had unearthed several Third World markets for the company’s new line of paper and stationery products. And so, when his manager’s marriage was on the rocks, in part because of his frequent travels, the old man had reluctantly agreed to appoint him temporary head of the human resources division, a job that would allow him to sleep at home every night and try to repair the damage. Yet the hostility engendered by his absence was only distilled into a more concentrated poison by his presence, and the chasm between them— at first psychological, then intellectual, and finally sexual— continued to grow of its own accord. Now that he was divorced, all that kept him from returning to his old job, which he had liked, was his determination to stay close to his daughter.
As soon as he’d appeared in the doorway of the owner’s spacious office, where the elegantly muted light never changed with the time of day or year, the article due to appear in the local weekly was dramatically hurled at him.
“An employee of ours?” The resource manager found that hard to credit. “Impossible. I would have known about it. There must be some mistake.”
The owner did not answer. He simply held out the galleys, which the resource manager read quickly while still standing. The odious article was entitled “The Shocking Inhumanity Behind Our Daily Bread.” Its subject was a forty-year-old woman found critically wounded after a bombing in the Jerusalem market the week before. Her only identifying mark had been a pay stub issued by the company. For two days she had fought for her life in the hospital without any of her employers or fellow workers taking the slightest interest in her. Even after her death, she had lain in the hospital morgue abandoned and unidentified, her fate unmourned and her burial unprovided for. (There followed a brief description of the company and its large, well-known bakery, founded at the beginning of the last century by the owner’s grandfather and recently augmented by the new line of paper products.) Two photographs accompanied the text. One, taken years ago, was an old studio portrait of the owner; the other was of the human resources manager. It was dark and blurry, evidently snapped recently, without his knowledge. The caption noted that he owed his position to his divorce.
© 2004 Abraham B. Yehoshua
English translation © 2006 by Hillel Halkin
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PRAISE FOR A WOMAN IN JERUSALEM
"The force and deceptive simplicity of a masterpiece . . . embedded in this simple story are fundamental questions about identity, selfhood, belonging."—CLAIRE MESSUD, THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
"A sad, warm, funny book . . . that has deep lessons to impart."—THE ECONOMIST
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