“One Night, Markovitch” has been a great surprise at the end of last year. It had quite an anonymous presentation at the bookstore. No fancy placement or anything but for some reason, it managed to catch my attention.
Reading the back cover convinced me it was worth a try: it sounded adventurous and quirky enough, and it also mentioned a moustache. Sold!
The first impression
After started reading this book my first impression was not positive. Not at all.
The tone, the continuous reference to seduction and erotism and the super-focused characters gave me a bad idea of this book.
“Oh god! I am reading a romance novel – worse, I am reading an erotic novel!”
Fortunately, I was wrong.
It is true. In this novel, you’ll find a lot of love. Sex is a constant desire of the characters and a bunch of them are more than sensible to the temptations of a beautiful human of a different gender. But, in its way, this becomes a representation of love and passion; a peculiar frame around the theme of survival.
The setting of the story is a small village in Israel. The time is all the period surrounding the Second World War. In a way, the story focuses on the founders of Israel and their heroism. The writer tricks us into thinking this, but then she manages to show us how human they are and how their mistakes and feelings impact their lives.
The protagonists of the novel are Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg. The two are great friends but perfect opposites. The first has a face so easily forgettable that the army uses him to smuggle weapons. The second is a giant that impresses everybody around him. Yaacov is timid and unsuccessful with women. Zeev is passionate and the wearer of a sexy moustache.
The driving accident is an Israeli plan to rescue Jewish women in Germany. To do so, a group of young men is sent to Europe to marry the girls and bring them back to Israel. Once back home, they are supposed to divorce them and set them free. The army selects Yaakov and Zeev for the mission. Everything goes wrong when the unremarkable Markovitch is paired with Bella, the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.
“Zeev Feinberg parted from his own obligation and left Yaffa on the sofa, blushing about something he had just wispered to her. Now Zeev wanted to see what the goddess of luck had given his friend, and once again noted that the bitch invariably gives nuts to people who have no teeth.”
Yaakov, who has always done what he was asked. He who has never raised his voice nor known the passion of love decides this time is different. Once back in Israel, when all the others accept to divorce their wives, he refuses, trapping the poor Bella in a marriage she doesn’t want.
Most of the book will follow the poor man while he tries to convince his wife to love him. At the same time, she does everything she can to punish him with the help of the society that considers him a traitor who didn’t keep his word.
In parallel, we follow the story of Zeev and Sonya and how their passion has to survive the attacks of time and life. Similarly, other stories give us a different perspective of how that place and period were impacting the lives of every character.
Despite the whole story talks about events happening to the characters, it really is a story about the foundation of the nation of Israel. The struggle of the people coming to a land that doesn’t love them and where a field giving back strawberries is seen as a miracle.
One Night, Markovitch: style and the magical realism
Once you get used, it flows like water. Let me explain what I mean.
Gundar-Goshen’s style is quite unique. More than anyone I’ve ever read, she makes use of three mechanisms:
- Repetition. At a first glance, this is the first thing I noticed. Characters are referred by name and surname (some of them by title). No matter what, regardless how long such name is, the author will refer to characters always using it fully. No “he” or “she” here. In a broader sense, images and behaviours repeat over and over during the course of the book.
This might sound annoying, but it creates the effect of poetry; as if the story was told in rhymes in front of a fire.
If I hadn’t read this book, I wouldn’t believe this to be possible, but the story just reads in an impressively easy way. As said, it just flows.
- Irony. During the whole experience, I felt like the writer was enjoying herself. This made me have fun with her. Whereas the themes could be poignant, the tone is always witty. This, together with the rhythm of its narration makes it for a pleasure to read.
- Strong images / Magical Realism. This is probably the most distinctive trait of the author’s style. It is not unusual in this book to have people swimming for miles in the sea (even while saving children with one hand and bringing chess pieces in the other). Similarly, you’ll see others staring at the sun to blind themselves or increasing the speed of a train with their desire for a woman. These are all example of magical realism that increases the tone of mythological founding tale that this novel already has.
Characters’ personalities are extreme. Each one of them focuses on a single emotion at every given time and becomes the embodiment of it. This is again what mythology would do and I guess it participates to the overall tone of the novel.
The book has a variegated cast of personalities and does a good job at showing them to us without having to tell us anything. We can see the behaviour of each character and understand what they think. When this cannot happen, other characters will come and help us understand what is going on through their take on the others and the story.
The unremarkable Markovitch, the beautiful Bella, the vigorous Zeev, the strong Sonya who smells like oranges, the heroic deputy commander of the Irgun – everyone can be identified by their name and what qualifies them for who we believe they are. This makes it for even more impact when they move away from their role of mythological heroes and become more real.
Does “One Night, Markovitch” have any problem?
Well, nothing is perfect.
I think the main problem is that the final moments of the book feel a bit dragged on. Also, whereas the rest of the book is always full of surprises, this last part becomes quite predictable.
I also have to admit that the style might not appeal certain readers who dislike such concentration of sensuality.
Overall I enjoyed this book way more than I expected and I recommend it for everyone to read. It is entertaining, thought-provoking and touching enough that there is space for everyone to enjoy.
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