A. B. Yehoshua is an Israeli author who has won prestigious awards in Israel. He seems to like to write about multiple-generational and multiple-national groups of people traveling together for a single purpose.
In this novel, A Journey to the End of the Millennium, we find ourselves positioned on a former warship, now reconstructed for peacetime travel of a Jewish trader, Ben Attar, his two wives, his Arabic Christian trading partner, his Muslim Arabic Captain, his African servant, a Sephardic Rabbi from Seville, Rabbi Elbaz, and the rabbi’s son, along with a Muslim crew of sailors, and a pair of camels. We meet them as they are on the verge of sailing down the Seine to meet with the Jewish trader’s nephew, a third partner, Raphael Abulafia and is repudiating wife, Esther-Minna. To this list of characters you can add Raphael’s first wife and mentally challenged daughter, his brother-in-law and the Jewish communities of Paris and Worms.
Confusing? No? Yes! But everyone in our small, intimate reading group said that this book was worth the struggle at the packed opening of the novel, to work through the hard read to gain the jewels embedded within a story that takes you back in time, but also asks you to consider the state of our relations with one another across gender, cultural and religious issues today. Do we differ much from the characters in the story? Do we communicate with any greater ease than back then when one had to choose between old Hebrew, new Hebrew, French, Arabic, German etc.
Basically the question is asked: Can a man be repudiated for having two wives, by an European woman who has herself been married twice? Ben Attar feels it is an easy case for him to make, which is why his has uprooted his two wives to make the long journey to where his nephew and trading partner lives, in a new city called Paris.
Through a series of trials, we move through Europe, at a precipice of history, when Christians are anticipating the return of Christ, their Messiah, during the Highest Holy Days of the Jewish religion, at a time when exotic cultures were encountering each other via the trading of Middle Eastern handicrafts, clothes and spices.
Will religion bind the north and south families together? Will the cultures bound by trade allow for the exchange of ideas as well as commerce? Will the physician who calls himself, Otto the First, who has repudiated his Jewish faith to meld with his Christian neighbors, express Yehoshua’s prophecy for the ages, as to which progeny will survive?
I enjoyed the uniqueness of the novel: The places it took you to; The encountering of many people meeting for the first time, who wish to prevail, as to what is the moral course for humans on their journey. I enjoyed the way Yehoshua’s presents this story. What is the equality of relationships if men can have multiple wives, but women cannot? What limits do we place on ourselves by the veils of our identities, gender, religious or national / cultural? isn’t the most important part of our journey as human beings to be both successful and spiritually guided people, regardless of our religious and cultural perceptions? Seen from the author’s perspective, we are all traveling together, making arbitrary separations between ourselves, rather than enjoying our unity as human beings on one planet.
Read the book. Enjoy the journey. We did, and we can pretty much assure, you will too.
Stacey Dee Maurer-Kramer