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Unidentified Body, Identity Crisis

The title of A.B. Yehoshua’s latest novel, A Woman in Jerusalem, (Harcourt, translated by Hillel Halkin, $25) suggests the beginning of its plot: a woman in her late 40s dies of a suicide bombing in a Jerusalem market, and lies unidentified in a hospital morgue for days. When a journalist discovers a pay stub in her purse, the victim becomes the only character in the book to have a name: Yulia Ragayev. (All others are known only by what they do or by their relationship to the narrator, first known as the human resources manager, and later as the emissary.) In due course, other key biographical facts emerge: Yulia was a non- Jewish engineer from the former Soviet Union who lived in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, and worked as a cleaning woman on the night shift in a large bakery.

None of the women (or the men) in this richly symbolic novel are what they first appear to be. Yehoshua tells us, for example, that Yulia is “in perfect condition,” according to the French beret-wearing morgue lab technician. “Believe me, she looks like a sleeping angel…The only visible damage was a few small puncture wounds in her hands and feet and a scratch on her skull.” Whose sins has this “Tatar-eyed” beauty died for? Was the bombing the thing that killed Yulia, or was there some other cause? Will her death somehow save the masses of nameless characters that surround her?

Eventually, we learn more about the dual mission of the human resources manager. The owner of the bakery—whose business is bustling because of the political and economic situation (we’re informed that people eat more bread when they can’t afford other things or can’t cross the border to buy food)—sends the manager on a no expenses-spared mission to save the company’s humanity in the wake of accusations soon to be released in a weekly tabloid.

While the human resources manager at first takes on the mission only at the threat of losing his job, within the first few days, he begins to feel a deeper drive for carrying out the mission fijlly: he finds himself desperately wanting to understand Yulia by delving into how she lived, whom she loved, and where she was from. Yet as much as he chases Yulia’s shadows to gain some measure of intimacy with her inner life, he can’t bring himself to look at her actual body.

The human resources manager has similar issues in his other relationships. In his hometown of Jerusalem, he’s surrounded by women who don’t cut him any slack—a secretary who takes over the investigation, a mother who questions his motives, an inflexible ex limiting visits with his timid teenaged daughter. Perhaps it’s no wonder he frequents bars to find women to love, or finds himself consumed by his mission—which leads him ultimately to travel with Yulia’s coffin to her ancestral homeland to ensure a proper burial. Here, the human resources manager experiences demonic dreams that lead to a releasing of his old ideas about identity and responsibility. In the end, A Woman in Jerusalem makes readers reconsider their own notions of who “the other” is and where they rightfully belong.

Yael Flusberg is a writer, nonprofit coach and consultant, and yoga teacher based in Washington, DC.