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.