4 out of 4 stars
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Andalusian in Jerusalem, by Mois Benarroch and translated by Enriqueta Carrington, is a strange, destabilizing novel about a writer grappling with identity and memory.
The book opens with Guillermo, the narrator, recounting childhood memories, including one wherein he tells his classmates that he’s Jewish, although (to his knowledge) he isn’t.
The book then transitions to present day, where Guillermo is in Jerusalem for a writers’ festival. While walking through the streets of Jerusalem, Guillermo wanders into a woman’s home, and she tells him she’s his mother, that his name is actually David (which is Guillermo’s secret name for himself) and that he died in the Lebanon War. Guillermo suddenly leaves, telling the woman he will return the next day.
Guillermo then meets with his writer friends, Charly and Nora, and Charly tells a story that sounds a lot like Guillermo’s recent strange encounter with the woman. Upon leaving Charly and Nora, Guillermo is kidnapped by several men who show him a movie about water memory (which is explained later as a phenomenon whereby water remembers events, and thanks to this memory, one might even reproduce the underlying events). The kidnappers tell him the movie proves that they’re the owners of Jerusalem, and ask him to write about it. Guillermo agrees to try, and they return him to his hotel.
The next morning, Charly gives Guillermo a manuscript of a novel he’s written, and Guillermo agrees to read it. Guillermo then tries unsuccessfully to find the home of the woman who claimed to be his mother.
Guillermo reads Charly’s manuscript, which is a fluid, meandering work about the Jews of Spain, their forced conversions, which led to uncertainty about Jewish identity, and their expulsion from the region. Upon completing the manuscript, Guillermo searches again for his “mother’s” home. The ensuing events bring the reader back to the underlying themes of memory and identity.
There are two things I especially liked about this book. The first is the sophisticated way the author dealt with the themes of memory and identity that appear throughout the book. Too frequently authors treat thematic elements with a heavy hand, and tell rather than show. In this case, a lot of things are left unsaid, and I think it takes a great deal of discipline on the part of the author to trust the reader to follow along.
The second aspect of the novel that I enjoyed was its matter-of-fact recounting of strange events. The plot summary makes the book sound like science fiction, because there are definitely elements of the supernatural, but the characters wave off these event, attributing them to the city and explaining that these kinds of things happen in Jerusalem. Because of the characters’ reactions to the supernatural events, the novel has an element of magical realism.
There were a few aspects of the novel that I found problematic. The portion of the book that consists of Charly’s manuscript is too long. This section is necessary to support the themes of identity and memory, but partway through I found myself unsettled and felt as though I’d been abandoned by the narrator. This could be remedied by breaking the narrator’s reading of the manuscript into two parts, with a brief return to the main story halfway through. The manuscript also included quite a lot of poetry, which I began to find a little tiresome.
I also found myself reacting to the book in a very unemotional way. I did not care at all about the narrator—he was not likeable, nor even especially well developed. Strangely, I was much more moved by the characters and the stories in Charly’s manuscript.
Another small complaint: Charly’s manuscript delves into certain aspects of the history of Sephardi Jews. This was fascinating, but not something I was familiar with. Because this history plays such a large role in the themes that the novel explores, it might be beneficial to include a short note at the beginning of the novel to give the reader a brief background.
This is a short book, but not a page-turner. It is, however, very fluid, so it’s not a difficult read. I would recommend this novel for readers who enjoy literary fiction, and it would be an excellent choice for a book club—shorter books are more likely to get read, and there would be plenty to discuss.
I found several typos, so the book would benefit from an additional reading by an editor. However, because the errors weren’t pervasive, and because its shortcomings are outweighed by its unusual sophistication, I rated Andalusian in Jerusalem 4 out of 4 stars.
Andalusian in Jerusalem
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