Lessons in Civility and Compassion From A.B. Yehoshua
THE ONLY DAUGHTER, by A.B. Yehoshua | Translated by Stuart Schoffman
In a 2016 interview, the late Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua named the 19th-century Italian novel “Cuore” (“Heart”), by Edmondo De Amicis, as one of the books from childhood that had stuck with him throughout his life. Presented as the diary of an upper-class schoolboy in Turin and embedded with the moralistic tales he is assigned by his teacher, the novel’s patriotism and sentimentality made it an immediate sensation in Italy, while its themes of solidarity and self-sacrifice made it a staple of textbooks in many socialist countries throughout the first half of the 20th century. In the young state of Israel, the book’s numerous Hebrew translations were popular bar mitzvah gifts in the 1950s.
Yehoshua described “Cuore” as “a book filled with feeling and moral values” that was among his early inspirations to write. In the novel “The Only Daughter,” his second-to-last book, he offers De Amicis an affectionate yet cleareyed homage.
Rachele Luzzato, the titular only daughter, is a graceful and clever schoolgirl living in northern Italy. The novella follows her over the span of a few weeks as she is shuttled across the region, from a ski vacation in the Dolomites to a costume party at her grandmother’s Venice home, and on to several other minor adventures. Throughout these travels she conducts edifying conversations with her elders, who are all charmed by her opinionated confidence. The story’s schoolbook quality is enhanced by the fact that everyone around this carefree rich girl is invariably kind and generous, and espouses the same values of secular humanism, from her orthodox rabbi to her maternal grandmother, “a devout atheist who is nonetheless careful not to sabotage the Jewish faith of her only granddaughter.”
At the start of the novella, Rachele is cast as “the Mother of God” in her school’s Christmas play, but her father won’t allow her to participate because of their Jewish heritage. He is the only member of Rachele’s doting family who assigns the matter any importance. Later, when we learn that he has an illness, an “appendage enlarging the brain to help Papa understand the changing situation,” as Rachele imagines it, and will have to undergo surgery to remove it, the link between religious isolationism and cancerous growth is heavily implied. Though initially set up as a major conflict, the Christmas play is quickly forgotten once Rachele is whisked off on her ski vacation, and the father’s illness is likewise resolved without much drama.
The rapid introduction and dismissal of narrative threads and images persists throughout this episodic novella, raising questions of what might have been. In a more ambitious novel, the experiences of Rachele’s Jewish grandfather, who survived World War II by masquerading as a priest, and the birth of her father, assisted by a resentful Nazi doctor, could have been given space to accumulate nuance and meaning. In the present volume, however, the author gives more space to a retelling and discussion of two didactic stories from “Cuore.”
Yehoshua died last June, preceded by his accomplished translator Stuart Schoffman by only a few months. In more than a dozen celebrated works of fiction, Yehoshua maintained a consistent universal humanism, often underpinned by secular Jewish values, while exposing and condemning the dangers of both fanaticism and insularity.
In “The Only Daughter” he urges a return to civility, compassion and the many other basic human virtues we learned in grade school, from our books, our families and our teachers — virtues we might have forgotten over time. It is an old-fashioned book, free of cynicism, encroaching technology and intricate plotting, but imbued with a heartfelt and optimistic view of humanity — in other words, a book filled with feeling and moral values.
Shay K. Azoulay is an Israeli playwright and novelist.
THE ONLY DAUGHTER | By A.B. Yehoshua | Translated by Stuart Schoffman | 191 pp. | HarperVia/HarperCollins Publishers | $26.99