Fic­tion

At Night’s End

  • Review
By – September 10, 2021

Nir Baram’s nov­els have all been best­sellers in his native Israel, but he is still rel­a­tive­ly unknown here. At Night’s End, an intense­ly per­son­al and often dis­com­fit­ing work that won raves when it first appeared in Israel, will very like­ly change that. In non­lin­ear episodes, the sto­ry tra­vers­es decades in the deep but trou­bled friend­ship between the pro­tag­o­nist Yonatan and Yoel. Now in their thir­ties, both are osten­si­bly suc­cess­ful men: Yonatan, a writer with a grow­ing inter­na­tion­al rep­u­ta­tion, and Yoel, an accom­plished lawyer. But for some time, Yoel has become fright­en­ing­ly unmoored from real­i­ty and Yonatan, attend­ing a lit­er­ary fes­ti­val in Mex­i­co City, fears for his friend’s life. Though Yonatan’s wife and infant son are wait­ing for his return to Israel, some­thing par­a­lyzes him and, filled with dread, he spends fever­ish days and drunk­en nights wan­der­ing the city as he con­jures up scenes from their shared past.

Yonatan’s Prous­t­ian rever­ies take us back to the begin­ning, when they were two lone­ly and bul­lied chil­dren grow­ing up in the Beit HaK­erem neigh­bor­hood of south­west Jerusalem, a pre­dom­i­nant­ly sec­u­lar enclave. Social­ly iso­lat­ed, Yonatan spends much of his time strug­gling to cope with his ail­ing mother’s immi­nent death and the sense that he has bit­ter­ly dis­ap­point­ed her. Ini­tial­ly drawn togeth­er large­ly because of their unpop­u­lar­i­ty, both are also high­ly cere­bral, and as they spend their time wan­der­ing a near­by wadi, they weave togeth­er a fan­ta­sy king­dom com­posed of com­plex sto­ry­lines and men­ac­ing char­ac­ters that reflect their anx­i­eties and con­fu­sions about the real world: The king­dom was a place that could absorb all their ideas, a domain that lived some­where between his­to­ry, which Yoel liked, and imag­i­na­tion — most­ly Yonatan’s.” For a time, the excite­ment of that cre­ative activ­i­ty sus­tains them, a world unto them­selves, but grad­u­al­ly they are drawn into the intrigues of the neigh­bor­hood — score-set­tlings of rival youth gangs, jeal­ousies over girls and oth­er com­pli­ca­tions — and their sto­ry is marked by a series of estrange­ments and rec­on­cil­i­a­tions that grow more strained over the years. Their bond is fur­ther test­ed when Yonatan lat­er recounts painful episodes from their shared his­to­ry in his pop­u­lar nov­els. Not with­out some bit­ter­ness, Yoel remarks: You, from the ash­es of our child­hood, you pro­duce mir­a­cles.” Yet, though the rup­tures in their rela­tion­ship some­times last for months and even years, some­thing in their orbits always restore them to one another.

Aside from the two pri­ma­ry char­ac­ters, this arrest­ing nov­el vivid­ly brings a large cast of fam­i­ly mem­bers and friends to life. But through­out, Baram is most pro­found­ly attuned to the inte­ri­or­i­ty of his ado­les­cent char­ac­ters, and his under­stat­ed scenes por­tray­ing their upheavals are drawn with intri­cate grace. At one point, young Yonatan mus­es self-reflec­tive­ly, that there were a num­ber of dif­fer­ent chil­dren inside him, each with dif­fer­ent qual­i­ties, some were restrained and polite, some were cheer­ful and charm­ing and uni­ver­sal­ly liked, some gen­uine­ly liked being lone­ly. Under cer­tain cir­cum­stances, any of these kids could steal his body.” Baram also proves adept at por­tray­ing the some­what lim­i­nal soci­ety of the 1980s, when Yonatan and his peers find them­selves caught between the provin­cial, aus­tere social­ism of their parent’s gen­er­a­tion and the bright­ly col­ored entice­ments” of the West. Their sec­u­lar Jerusalem was one of sing-alongs, pop­pies and sun­flow­ers, nature hikes, youth move­ments, social­ist role models…disdain of any­one who was showy or gar­ru­lous, and under­ly­ing guilt about not liv­ing on a kib­butz.” Clear­ly a very dif­fer­ent time from the one inhab­it­ed by Yonatan as he gazes back rue­ful­ly at his past.

Through­out, this novel’s tonal reg­is­ter is breath­tak­ing in its range, whether cap­tur­ing the lyri­cal inten­si­ty of first love, the casu­al cru­el­ties of chil­dren, a father’s ador­ing, yet ago­nized, devo­tion to his infant son, or the creepy atmos­phere of a for­eign city’s under­bel­ly at night. Nev­er less than con­stant­ly grip­ping in Book­er Prize-win­ning trans­la­tor Jes­si­ca Cohen’s exquis­ite ren­der­ing, At Night’s End, which can seem almost painful­ly con­fes­sion­al at times, soars as a mag­nif­i­cent ele­gy to friend­ship and dev­as­tat­ing loss, the full con­tours of which only become ful­ly appar­ent in the final pages.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and his lat­est book is Imag­in­ing the Kib­butz: Visions of Utopia in Lit­er­a­ture & Film.

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