Second Person Singular

Second Person Singular

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Overview

"Part comedy of manners, part psychological mystery . . . Issues of nationalism, religion, and passing collide with quickly changing social and sexual mores." — Boston Globe

From one of the most important contemporary voices to emerge from the Middle East comes a gripping tale of love and betrayal, honesty and artifice, which asks whether it is possible to truly reinvent ourselves, to shed our old skin and start anew.

Second Person Singular follows two men, a successful Arab criminal attorney and a social worker-turned-artist, whose lives intersect under the most curious of circumstances. The lawyer has a thriving practice in the Jewish part of Jerusalem, a large house, a Mercedes, speaks both Arabic and Hebrew, and is in love with his wife and two young children. In an effort to uphold his image as a sophisticated Israeli Arab, he often makes weekly visits to a local bookstore to pick up popular novels. On one fateful evening, he decides to buy a used copy of Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata , a book his wife once recommended. To his surprise, inside he finds a small white note, a love letter, in Arabic, in her handwriting. I waited for you, but you didn't come. I hope everything's all right. I wanted to thank you for last night. It was wonderful. Call me tomorrow? Consumed with suspicion and jealousy, the lawyer slips into a blind rage over the presumed betrayal. He first considers murder, revenge, then divorce, but when the initial sting of humiliation and hurt dissipates, he decides to hunt for the book's previous owner—a man named Yonatan, a man who is not easy to track down, whose identity is more complex than imagined, and whose life is more closely aligned with his own than expected. In the process of dredging up old ghosts and secrets, the lawyer tears the string that holds all of their lives together.

A Palestinian who writes in Hebrew, Sayed Kashua defies classification and breaks through cultural barriers. He communicates, with enormous emotional power and a keen sense of the absurd, the particular alienation and the psychic costs of people struggling to straddle two worlds. Second Person Singular is a deliciously complex psychological mystery and a searing dissection of the individuals that comprise a divided society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802121202
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 03/19/2013
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 496,461
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Sayed Kashua was born in 1975 and is the author of the novels Dancing Arabs and Let It Be Morning , which was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Kashua writes a weekly column for Haaretz and is a writer and the creator of Arab Labor , one of Israel's most popular sitcoms. He lives in Jerusalem with his family.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

PART ONE

THE BRATZ BEDDING

The moment the lawyer opened his eyes he knew he'd be tired for the rest of the day. He wasn't sure whether he'd heard it on the radio or read it in the newspaper, but he'd come across a specialist who described sleep in terms of cycles. Often the reason people are tired, the specialist explained, was not due to insufficient sleep but rather a sudden awakening before the cycle had run its course. The lawyer did not know anything about these cycles — their duration, their starting point, their ending point — but he did know that this morning, in essence almost every morning, he rose right in the middle of one. Had he ever experienced what must be the wonderful sensation of waking up naturally, at the tail end of a cycle? He wasn't sure. He imagined sleep cycles like the waves of the sea and himself as a surfer upon them, gliding toward shore and then suddenly, violently, being tossed into the water, waking up with a terror he did not fully understand.

The lawyer was internally programmed to wake up early, and yet, when he had to be in court in the morning, he would set the alarm on his cell phone, even though he knew he would jolt awake before it rang.

The sounds of his family's morning routine floated down to his bed. Or rather, his daughter's bed. She was six years old, in first grade, and ever since her birth the lawyer had made a habit of sleeping in her room. As a baby, she woke up often in the middle of the night, in need of nursing, changing, and soothing, and it was at this time that the lawyer first altered the family's sleeping arrangements. The baby slept in a crib in her parents' bedroom, alongside her mother, who tended to her, and he slept alone on the floor of his daughter's room, on a mattress.

At the time, his wife did not begrudge him this arrangement. She knew her husband needed a full night's sleep in order to function properly at work, and she, enjoying a full year of maternity leave, was not saddled with the difficult and demanding work of a young attorney who was just beginning to establish himself as one of Jerusalem's most promising criminal lawyers.

So for two years, the lawyer slept on a thin mattress laid over a Winnie-the-Pooh rug, the bear sailing along in the basket of a hot air balloon, surrounded by four serene, sky-blue, cloud-graced walls and a posse of stuffed animals, some of which were gifts from family and friends, and others, the bulk of the collection, bought by the couple for their firstborn child, who continued to sleep in her parents' bedroom alongside her mother. Ever since their daughter had begun to sleep through the night, the lawyer had been visiting his wife several times a week, staying in their bed until morning. Occasionally, his wife would pay him a visit, but he preferred the former arrangement, because the toys, housed on the shelves and in the drawers — teddy bears, puppies, and innocent dolls in wedding dresses — seemed to peer out at them in fear and astonishment, aghast at the strange ceremony being performed right beneath their noses.

When their daughter turned two, the couple decided it was time for her to make the leap from crib to toddler bed. She was tall for her age — and still is, even today, looming a full head over the rest of her classmates — but even after buying the new bed, a pink race car that contrasted nicely with the sky-blue walls and the floating clouds, the lawyer continued to sleep in the girl's room and she began to sleep on his side of the queen bed with her mother. The lawyer's life, though, took a turn for the better with this new stage in his daughter's development because the toddler bed came equipped with an orthopedic mattress.

Last year, the couple had a second child, a son. Several weeks after his birth, the couple moved out of their rented apartment and into a duplex that they had built and designed to their specifications. The upper floor consisted of a large living room, a designer kitchen, and two bedrooms, one of which was especially large — the couple enjoyed calling it the master bedroom, a term they'd only recently acquired — and another that had been outfitted for the new baby boy, with sky-blue ceilings and Shrek wallpaper. The girl's room was downstairs. It was airy and cream-colored, with a matching bed, desk, shelves, and a spacious purple-and-cream closet. The bottom floor also had a bathroom, a small storage room, and an office, the lawyer's sanctuary — an antique mahogany desk, a gift from one of his clients, dominated the book-lined room.

The move to the new house did not alter the couple's sleeping habits. Their son was still an infant and his mother preferred that his crib be near her bed, and their daughter, despite all attempts to convince her otherwise, was scared to sleep alone in her room. The lawyer and his wife, sensitive to her fear of being alone on the bottom floor, suggested that she sleep on a mattress in her brother's room. She agreed, but nearly every night she woke up terrified and ran straight to her parents' room. And that is how the lawyer found himself back in his daughter's bed. Not that he minded. At the end of the day, the lawyer preferred sleeping alone.

The lawyer heard his wife's shrill voice ordering their daughter to wash her face and brush her teeth. Her quick and cantankerous steps reverberated through the ceiling. Why does she walk like that? he wondered. It was like she was making a point with her feet. Boom, boom, boom. Red Army soldiers on parade. "How should I know where your hair scrunchies are?" he heard his wife yell. "Maybe next time you should be a little more careful with your things. You're not a baby anymore, you know. Let's go. Quick. Downstairs, get dressed, and make sure you have all your school books. Too bad. No hair scrunchies. You'll make do. Let's go. I don't want to hear another word. I'm late."

The lawyer recognized his daughter's chastened steps on the wooden stairs and the sounds of his wife, blowing her nose in the bathroom and spitting as she brushed her teeth. He thought about his wife, about the noises she made, and wondered if there was a way to tell her how awful it sounded. He was sure that, if she knew, she would change her ways. The toilet seat came down with a thud and his daughter pushed open the door to her room. Her eyes, as he expected, seemed to be seeking shelter from her mother's scolding.

The lawyer smiled at his daughter, peeled off the Bratz blanket, sat up in bed, and motioned to her to come sit beside him — the exact sign she had been waiting for. She wanted to know whose side he had chosen this morning, and the smile and the invitation for a hug reassured her. Who knew, perhaps he'd even criticize his wife, admonish her. "I didn't lose my hair thingies," the girl protested, sitting in her father's lap. "I put them next to the sink yesterday before I went to bed. Why's she yelling at me? Tell her, Daddy, I didn't lose them."

"I'm sure we'll find them soon," the lawyer said, caressing his daughter's hair.

"We'll never find them. And anyway, they're old. I need new ones, lots of new ones, so that if some of them get lost there'll still be more. Okay?"

"Okay," the lawyer said. "Now get dressed. We don't want to be late, all right, sweetheart?"

"I don't have anything to wear," she said, pouting as she peered into her closet. The lawyer smiled at his daughter again and left the room. He considered going into the master bedroom to wish his wife a good morning and then wondered whether she'd come downstairs to greet him, but he did not go in and she did not come down. The lawyer had no tolerance for false gestures. He had heard often, from clients and experts on TV, that the way to ensure quiet on the home front was for the husband to deceive the wife, to compliment and praise her at all times, but that quiet, of the kind they were referring to, he already had aplenty. The lawyer could not contend that his wife henpecked him; on the contrary, she ran the house and took care of the kids with unwavering authority and never complained when he stayed late at the office or refrained from helping around the house. As he went upstairs and into the kitchen to make coffee, he considered these things, satisfied that his wife harbored no complaints.

He heard her cooing to the baby as she dressed him. He could have popped into the bedroom and she could have stopped by the kitchen. Instead he made his way back downstairs with a cup of coffee. He saw that his daughter was getting dressed in her room and then continued on to the study, shutting the door behind him. This was the only smoking room, in accordance with his house rule. This applied to everyone. If any of their guests wanted to smoke, they were welcome to step out onto the patio or to go downstairs. The lawyer's wife did not smoke.

SCHOOL

After checking that his daughter was properly buckled into the backseat of his black Mercedes-Benz, the lawyer looked over at his wife and saw her strapping the baby into her blue Volkswagen Golf. Ordinarily, his wife did the dropping off — their daughter at school and the baby at the nanny's house, a two-minute drive away — but on Thursdays, the last day of the work week for most Israelis, she worried about being late to her staff meetings, which started at eight o'clock sharp. The lawyer was rarely in a rush to get to the office on Thursdays so on this day alone they divided the labor.

The lawyer's wife clicked open the garage door. She came up to the lawyer's car and waved to her daughter. "Bye," she said to her husband, got into her car, and was the first to leave. She turned around and looked back at her husband and waved once again, smiling with gratitude. The lawyer nodded his head and sat down in his car. He felt himself a supportive husband who encouraged his wife's endeavors. True, other than dropping their daughter off on Thursdays he did not do much around the house or on the child-care front, but even small gestures, like taking their daughter to school or on occasion coming home early from work so that she could attend a conference or some work-related social function, were seen, by both of them, as major career sacrifices. They were aware that there was no comparing their salaries, the lawyer's and the social worker's, and though the lawyer never mentioned this to his wife, his friend, who was also his accountant, had told him that if his wife were to quit her job and stay at home, their income would actually rise. As a sole income earner, their tax breaks would amount to more than his wife's annual salary.

Mulling these things over as he drove his daughter to school, the lawyer realized that he did not know exactly what his wife did at work. That is to say, he knew she had a bachelor's degree in social work and that when they first met she had been working at the welfare office in Wadi Joz, in east Jerusalem, and that she had been enrolled in a master's program of some sort. He also knew that she had, over the years, attained an additional master's degree, in something therapy-related. He felt he had always encouraged her to study, always supported her, but he could not say with any degree of certainty what she did at her current welfare job in the south of the city, where she worked part-time, nor did he know whom she treated at the mental health clinic, where she held an additional part-time position. All of a sudden, before flipping on the radio to hear the seven-thirty news flash, the lawyer wanted to know what, for instance, those Thursday morning staff meetings looked like, the ones she was always nervous about being late for.

He drove slowly through the neighborhood's narrow streets, sunglasses shielding his eyes. Sometimes there was traffic at the main intersection, where hundreds of day laborers waited to be picked up. The young, strong-looking ones were selected early in the day, and by seven thirty in the morning all that remained were the older, weaker men. Contractors who woke up late would have to make do with them. At close to eight in the morning, when the lawyer generally crossed through the intersection, there was only a smattering of lonely workers. The sight always stung. What did the locals think of him? What did they make of Arabs like him, citizens of the state? With their luxury cars and their ostentatious lifestyles, the ones like him, who came here for college and stayed for financial reasons, immigrants in their own land. The Israeli Arabs with independent careers are the ones who avoid beating a track back to the villages of the Galilee and the Triangle. They are frequently lawyers, like him, or accountants or doctors. Some are academics. They are the only ones who can afford to stay and live in a city where the cost of living, even in the Arab neighborhoods, is many times higher than in any village in the Galilee or the Triangle.

Lawyers, accountants, tax advisors, and doctors — brokers between the noncitizen Arabs and the Israeli authorities, a few thousand people, living within Jerusalem but divorced from the locals among whom they reside. They will always be seen as strangers, somewhat suspicious, but wholly indispensable. Without them who would represent the residents of east Jerusalem and the surrounding villages in the Hebrew-speaking courts and tax authorities, against the insurance companies and the hospitals? Not that there is any great lack of doctors, lawyers, or economists among the east Jerusalem Arabs, but what can be done if, more often than not, the Israeli authorities do not accept their credentials? A higher education from somewhere in the West Bank or from another part of the Arab world does not suffice in Israel; a whole slew of supplementary material and a battery of tests, the vast majority of which are in Hebrew, are required. A few of the east Jerusalemites actually push through the grueling Israeli accreditation process, but the lawyer also knew that many of the locals preferred to be represented by someone who was a citizen of the state of Israel. He, so the lawyer felt they thought, was surely more familiar with the workings of the Jewish mind and soul. He, they believed, could not have attained his position in life without connections, kosher or otherwise. Somehow, in the eyes of the locals, the Arab citizens of Israel were considered to be half-Jewish.

The lawyer pulled his luxury sedan into the parking lot of the Jewish-Arab school, which had been founded by Arabs like him. They did not want their children educated in the east Jerusalemites' schools, public institutions infamous for their physical and pedagogical decay. The Israeli-Arab immigrants in Jerusalem wanted their children to study as they had, in other words in a school under the auspices of the Israeli Ministry of Education, a place that issued matriculation certificates that were recognized in Israel and internationally, as opposed to the east Jerusalem system, where, until recently, they had followed the Jordanian system, and, more recently, since the founding of the Palestinian Authority, the dictates of the Palestinian Ministry of Education. But even they, citizens of the state, educated people in positions of power, knew that they had no chance of setting up a school for their children without coming up with a novel idea. An immigrant from the Galilee, a PhD in education, found the solution: mixed bilingual education. He founded an NGO, called it Jews and Arabs Study Together in Jerusalem, and easily raised the money from European and American philanthropists seeking to promote peace in the Middle East.

The mostly Arab school board, with the assistance of the parent-teacher association, did all they could to ensure that only the children of the Arab citizens of Israel — these immigrants-in-their-own-land — would study in the school alongside the Jewish students, but they were unable to completely bar the acceptance of local Arabs. The board voiced their objections in nationalist terms, stating that the joint Arab-Jewish educational venture was meant for the Arab citizens of the state and not the Jerusalemites, who were part of the occupied West Bank. They argued that inclusion of the local children would violate their political beliefs, according to which, Israel must withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza, and east Jerusalem must be liberated from Israeli occupation and crowned as the capital of Palestine.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Second Person Singular"
by .
Copyright © 2010 Sayed Kashua.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Second Person Singular 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Litfan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This novel is incredibly well-written, with a well-balanced blend of wry humor, suspense, and profound depth. Set in Israel, it begins with an Arab attorney discovering a used book with a note inside, written in his wife¿s handwriting to a Yontan. Stunned and suspicious, the lawyer embarks on a search for this mysterious Yonatan and for the truth about his wife. What ensues is an unflinching exploration of identity in a torn land. In a country where both Jews and Arabs reside, but are often divided by enormous chasms, questions of identity and loyalty loom large. The party line is that Jews and Arabs have equal treatment and equal opportunity, but the reality is thrown into sharp relief as one character pushes the confines of identity to their farthest limits, with life-altering consequences. To say more about the plot would give away too much of the story. The writing is gripping and keeps you on your toes throughout, as nothing is always what it seems. While entertaining, it is also a thought-provoking meditation on a country tediously balancing itself between two cultures. Very highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I finished the book, but I found it its essence to be unimpressionable. The main character was obsessed with his supposed wife's indiscretion. I'm really not too certain the point of the plot.