by A. B. Yehoshua
New York: A Harvest Book, Harcourt, Inc., 1998
ISBN # 0-15-601116-6
309 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
November 2009

A Jewish merchant and his Muslim partner head back to Europe in the year 999. They are to meet the merchant’s nephew, where the nephew will take over their cargo of goods from North Africa to trade in Spain and France. However, there are complications:

  1. The millennium is about to occur and many Christians believe Jesus will return to Earth and bring about the end of time. Connected with that belief is one that Jews and other infidels might be in the way of the coming of Jesus, and thus there is considerable danger to the Jews.
  2. Further, the merchant’s nephew has married a Jewish woman from Worms and she is vehemently opposed to his continued alliance with his two African partners since she fears he will be away too much and might even find himself a younger woman as wife.
  3. Lastly, and very central to the whole plot, the Jewish merchant has recently taken a second wife, and Jewish law is quite unclear on whether or not this is acceptable. His nephew’s wife, seeing this as a way to separate her husband from his uncle, has had a condemnation put onto the uncle so that no Jew in good standing should have any relations with him. The merchant is coming with his own rabbi, to challenge this ruling.

Within the background of the situation above, Yehoshua weaves an extraordinary complex plot and creates what he presents as an accurate portrait of Medieval Europe.

I enjoyed the novel, though the development of the plot was slow and at times seemed a bit too slow, nonetheless it was quite interesting. Unfortunately for me, I was unable to judge whether the picture of Medieval Europe was accurate. That’s not the fault of the author, Yehoshua, but in the lack of my own background in Medieval history. It has made me want to read more about this period to discover more about the historical data on what life was like in the everyday life of people then.

The novel reads as though it were an oral tale, sort of a story a day that someone is telling. Each episode is relatively self-contained and there is some end being pursued, some complications and difficulties arise and a solution is arrived at that isn’t quite satisfactory to all parties, and thus the dissatisfaction leads to the next story within the story, with the same basic pattern. In many ways it reads like a set of a dozen or more loosely connected short stories.

Yehoshua seems to understand human beings with keen insight, and presents his characters in their complexity of virtue, vice, goodness and lesser ways of being. It became almost impossible for this reader to “root” for or favor one character over another, it was a complex tale of life that came across as very real and true to the nature of human beings.

Nonetheless, I’m not so sure I would much recommend the novel. I enjoyed it and am in no way sorry I read it, but, given there are so many many books out their crying out to be read, this may not have been one of my best choices.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu