Book Club: One Night, Markovitch
A brilliant debut from Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. This vibrant tale of two Jewish men and their arranged marriages is both funny and moving, and you will be bowled over by the author’s wit and panache even as you grieve for her characters: passionate, ambitious, selfish, generous, fickle, loyal and larger than life, their lives will take over your own even as they are turned upside down by the exigencies of war and the demands of the Irgun in a nascent Israel.
This vibrant tale of two Jewish men and their arranged marriages is both funny and moving, and you will be bowled over by the author’s wit and panache even as you grieve for her characters: passionate, ambitious, selfish, generous, fickle, loyal and larger than life, their lives will take over your own even as they are turned upside down by the exigencies of war and the demands of the Irgun in a nascent Israel.
Based on historical events, slightly surreal, infused with love, desire and melancholy – it is hard to believe that this exuberant, deeply affecting novel is a debut.
- Charlotte Norman, Waterstones Bookseller
One Night, Markovitch has that perfect balance that many novels aspire to. The true-to-life subject matter it is based on, the sham marriages between young European women to Palestinian men to allow the former to escape Europe shortly before World War Two, is not an easy one to tackle but Gundar-Goshen's writing keeps it accessible throughout.
It's an at times hilarious, touching and occasionally surreal novel about war, freedom and love and a welcome addition to our Book Club.
Read the first chapter of One Night, Markovitch below
Yaacov Markovitch wasn’t ugly. Which is not to say he was handsome. Little girls didn’t burst into tears at the sight of him, but neither did they smile when they saw his face. He was, you might say, gloriously average. Moreover, Yaacov Markovitch’s face was remarkably free of distinguishing features. So much so that your eyes could not linger on him, but slipped onward to other objects. A tree on the street. A cat in the corner. It required an enormous effort to keep looking at the barrenness of Yaacov Markovitch’s face. People do not enjoy making enormous efforts, and so they only rarely looked at his face for any length of time. This had its advantages, and the unit commander was aware of them. He looked at Yaacov Markovitch’s face for exactly the amount of time he needed, then dropped his gaze. You will smuggle weapons, the unit commander said. With that face, no one will notice. And he was right. Yaacov Markovitch probably smuggled more weapons than any other member of the Irgun, and never came close to being caught. The British soldiers’ gaze slid over his face like oil on a gun. If the Irgun members valued Yaacov Markovitch for his daring, he didn’t know it. Few spoke to him.
When he wasn’t smuggling weapons, he worked in the field. In the evening, he sat in the yard and fed leftover bread to the pigeons. Very quickly, a flock took to gathering there regularly, eating from his hands and perching on his shoulder. The village children would have laughed if they had seen that, but no one passed by the stone fence. At night, he read from the writings of Jabotinsky. Once a month, he went to Haifa and paid a woman to sleep with him. Sometimes it was the same woman, sometimes a different one. He didn’t dwell on her face and she didn’t dwell on his.
Yaacov Markovitch had one friend.
Yaacov Markovitch had one friend. Zeev Feinberg was, first of all, a mustache. Not blue eyes, not bushy eyebrows, not sharp teeth. Zeev Feinberg’s mustache was famous in the entire area, and, some said, in the entire country. When an Irgun member returned from a trip to the south, he talked about “the blushing girl who asked whether the sultan with the mustache was still with us”. Everyone laughed, but Zeev Feinberg laughed harder than any of them. And when he laughed, his mustache shook above his upper lip, it jiggled and wobbled, as happy as its owner had been between that girl’s thighs. It was clear that Zeev Feinberg was not born to smuggle weapons; his mustache preceded him like a pair of marching black exclamation marks. You had to be blind and stupid not to see him. And while the British were indeed stupid, it would be too optimistic to assume they were blind as well. But though he could not smuggle weapons in, Zeev Feinberg knew quite well how to drive Arabs out, and he spent many nights patrolling the village.
Few were the nights that Zeev Feinberg spent alone. When it became known that it was his night to stand guard, a group would immediately gather. Some wanted to hear about the adventures of his mustache between women’s thighs, others wanted to talk about the political situation and the damn Germans, and still others simply wanted his advice on raising cattle, weeding fields and extracting wisdom teeth—some of the areas in which Zeev Feinberg considered himself an expert. Girls would come as well. Though Zeev Feinberg was a loyal guard, his finger always on the trigger, it was nonetheless important to remember that God gave men ten fingers, and not for nothing. The fragrance of fields after rain, a smidgen of danger—a rustling there, an Arab or a wild boar—and the moans could sometimes carry all the way to the walls of the houses. Sometimes Yaacov Markovitch would join them, carrying his worn copy of Jabotinsky’s writings under his armpit, the smell of sweat rising from its pages. Zeev Feinberg welcomed him happily, as he did everyone else. He was so used to the company of people that he didn’t know how to be unsociable, even if he had wanted to. He didn’t really even hate the British, and when he killed someone, he did so reluctantly, albeit with great efficiency. The first time they spoke was when Yaacov Markovitch returned in the middle of the night from a journey to Haifa.
“Halt,” Zeev Feinberg thundered at him in the darkness. “Who are you and where do you come from?”
Yaacov Markovitch felt his legs tremble but answered in a steady voice, “I am Yaacov Markovitch. I was with a woman.”
Zeev Feinberg’s laughter woke the chickens in the coop. When they sat down together he continued to ask questions, and Yaacov Markovitch replied eagerly. He talked about the woman’s nipples, which were extremely nice, and agreed to describe in detail her rear end and her legs without demanding even one lira from Zeev Feinberg for the information that had cost him half his weekly wage.
In the end, Zeev Feinberg leaned towards Yaacov Markovitch and asked, “Tell me, how wet was she down there?” Zeev Feinberg’s mustache tickled Yaacov Markovitch’s cheek, but he didn’t dare move. No one had ever looked at his face for such a long period of time.
Finally, realizing that he could hesitate no longer, he replied, “What do you mean?”
“What do I mean?” Zeev Feinberg’s mustache whipped Yaacov Markovitch, pushing him backwards. His blue eyes gaped with such great shock that they almost swallowed up Yaacov Markovitch, together with the writings of Jabotinsky. “I mean her vagina, comrade. How wet was her vagina?” The very sound of the word made Yaacov Markovitch dizzy, and he sat down on a rock. Zeev Feinberg sat down beside him. “You do realize, I hope, that there can be different degrees of wetness? There are moist ones and there are wet ones, and there are the ones that—aie aie aie—you can drown in, like in the Black Sea. It depends, of course, on the woman’s nutrition and the weather, but mostly on the passion between the man and the woman.” Then Zeev Feinberg asked again how wet she was there, and Yaacov Markovitch had to admit that he hadn’t noticed even a tiny bit of dampness. “Nothing?”
“Nothing. Dry as the fields at the end of August.”
Now Zeev Feinberg was silent for a while, and then finally said, “In a case like that, comrade, I suggest that you find out whether she has other men. You’re probably familiar with the law of the preservation of matter. The body of a person contains a limited amount of liquid, and I suspect, my friend, that your woman there in Haifa is using hers up in the presence of another man.”
Yaacov Markovitch breathed a sigh of relief and declared that it was all clear to him now: the woman in Haifa had said that he was the fourth one that night, and, based on his knowledge of the law of the preservation of matter, it was indeed logical not to find water there. Zeev Feinberg burst out laughing and Yaacov Markovitch had to join in. He didn’t know what he was laughing about, nor did he wish to know. It was so pleasant to laugh beside that man whose mustache filled the valley and whose laughter reverberated throughout the entire country. If there had been any mockery in Zeev Feinberg’s laughter, it faded immediately, while the laughter went on for a long time. He laughed and laughed, until a small stain appeared at his crotch, and when he saw it he laughed even harder. From that night on, Yaacov Markovitch and Zeev Feinberg were friends.