“A masterpiece” about faith, race, and morality at a medieval turning point, from the National Jewish Book Award winner and “Israeli Faulkner” (The New York Times).
It’s edging toward the end of the year 999 when Ben Attar, a Moroccan Jewish merchant from Tangiers, takes two wives—an act of bigamy that results in the moral objections of his nephew and business partner, Raphael Abulafia, and the dissolution of their once profitable enterprise of importing treasures from the Atlas Mountains. Abulafia’s repudiation triggers a potentially perilous move by Attar to set things right—by setting sail for medieval Paris to challenge his nephew, and his nephew’s own pious wife, face to face.
Accompanied by a Spanish rabbi, a Muslim trader, a timid young slave, a crew of Arab sailors, and his two veiled wives, Attar will soon find himself in an even more dangerous battle—with the Christian zealots who fear that Jews and others they see as immoral infidels will impede the coming of Jesus at the dawn of a new millennium.
From the author of A Woman in Jerusalem, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, this is an insightful portrait of a unique moment in history as well as the timeless issues that still trouble us today.
“The end of the first millennium comes to represent only one of many breaches—between north and south, Christians and Jews, Jews and Muslims, Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews, men and women—across which A. B. Yehoshua's extraordinary novel delivers us.” —The New York Times
Eminent Israeli writer Yehoshua (Open Heart) offers a provocative, if somewhat ponderous parable about the birth of modern morality, women's rights and the prospects for Jewish survival. In A.D. 999, Ben Attar, a wealthy Jewish merchant from Tangier, embarks on a perilous voyage to Paris accompanied by his two wives, his Arab partner, a rabbi from Seville and a young black slave. His goal is to convince his nephew and ex-business partner, Raphael Abulafia, that bigamy (common among Arabs and not unheard-of among medieval Jews, we are told) is an honorable practice; that it's possible to love two wives equally and fairly. Raphael's wife, Esther-Minna, a worldly-wise Frankish widow, is morally repulsed by Ben Attar's bigamy, hence the business partnership's rupture. Punctuated by sultry lovemaking scenes and wondrously suffused with the customs, beliefs, food and medicine of the Middle Ages, the novel's spiritual compass navigates between a variety of polarities: the industrious, puritanical north and the sensual, easygoing south; Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewry; Christians and Jews; and medieval and modern mores. Ben Attar may be a decent, honest man by the standards of his time, but from our vantage point, he is fundamentally self-deluded. His two wives are nameless, veiled, shadowy figures, and he uneasily acquiesces when, on the return voyage, his Arab partner discloses newly acquired human cargo: eight slaves shackled in the ship's hold. That these are fair-skinned slaves only compounds the ironies as Yehoshua explores the anatomy of prejudice, desire, passion and self-righteousness. The overwritten story, which holds up a mirror to our own millennial angst, is nearly shipwrecked by serpentine, stately prose, a near-total absence of dialogue and deadweight descriptive passages.